Thursday, April 15, 2010

I’m losing status at the high school.— “Status Back, Baby”—Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention

I’m losing status at the high school.—
“Status Back, Baby”—Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention

Of late, it has crossed the mind that there is a new form of behavioral control being proscribed upon the socio-cultural sphere with brand new set of obligations as subtle as any Japanese court politesse, as tightly-bound as Emily Post in Moroccan leather, and, as finely delineated as B.F. Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior. And, amazingly enough, the metaphor comes built-in with the subject matter!

It is, of course, the Web. It is also, The Net. It is as well, not to stretch a point, an electromagnetic attraction. (Why do all these apply, and so aptly? That is something unponderable at this moment; suffice it to say—worthy subject for a follow-up.) Thus, as anyone can see, these all have built-in restraints and constraints and dynamics in their very definitions, let alone their poetic usages and implications. Here & now, though, they transcend those definitions to become…(we’ll get back to that…)

The exact instant this rose above the level of background processing (and yes, I know: too many computer metaphors for “thinking”? READ THE OTHER BLOG!) and began to consume major RAM, was after seeing an episode of “South Park”. Normally, this cartoon is off the radar as it is sort of boring (disgusted bus non dispute tandem bicycles), except, on this occasion, as the advertised subject was Facebook. It must be admitted: curiosity got the better of me. The influence of this phenomenon has not gone unnoticed, if only for the Marshall McLuhanesque aspects of it. (cf. SEE ABOVE, then BELOW) No novice here but hardly an acolyte, the prospect of seeing the world’s most popular (arguably, but not by me) social networking site reduced to a series of topical gags as appreciated by a gang of hyperactive 4th graders would, of necessity, strip away the overarching aspects of its place in the world of media and render it its essential functions. (Forget the potty-mouthed aspect: anyone who wasn’t at that age was raised in a vacuum, bubble or commune.) And that is enough of an introduction.

Though it is possible I am living in one of the aforementioned containment vessels, I have managed to get by without ever having sent a text message or engaged in an online chat. A cheapo cellphone only came into my life a year or so back, and I only signed on for a FB account to look at an e-mail sent by a friend. From this it would be easy to conclude the identity of a reluctant Luddite with a hard-on for hard disc space, or something. Well, were that true, why off earth would I have a blog? (Case closed.)

Yes, I like these toys but I also like CONTENT. As said in the last post, I prefer to emulate that sterling pedestrian equestrian of palomino persuasion, Mr. Ed, and not fritter away my time with drivel and doggerel. Yet the fascination with Facebook needs to be grappled with at some juncture. An attorney at the firm said that he found a witness he was looking for via FB. Now how modern is that? No skip tracer, no bondsman, or private dick—all you need to do is hunt him down…by his profile or…whatever.

And this is where the “South Park” show entitled, “You have 0 Friends”, came in handy. For those not in the know, of which I number myself, the enormous fan base has created its own language. Herewith, I intend to employ SP-ese—the shorthand and (I suppose) txt-version of conversation garnered from webchats and the like, whenever possible—but with a translation: such as refs to the “ep” (episode).

The boys have a new craze, Facebook, and as usual, are doing it to the exclusion of all else. Stan (the level-headed one, primarily, or at least, the killjoy of the bunch), loses his temper and says: “Why are you guys wasting your time on Facebook? We’re supposed to be out playing videogames!” As is common amongst them, their idea of a prank is to make him an FB account, against his express wishes.

Somewhere along here, the example of someone named Kip Drordy is mentioned as a complete social failure: he has a FB account with 0 friends for six months. (Hence the title of the episode. Kip is a one-time character.) He is seen sighing and staring at the screen of his computer; he has a sad clown picture on the wall behind him. (This is almost genuine pathos, here.) Then, suddenly, he is “friended” by Kyle and becomes renewed, focusing around this new addition to his life with utter infatuation. As soon as Stan’s father, Randy, finds out he has an account, he begs Stan to “friend” him. Then is told to friend mother and grandmother.

Kyle (the one whose hat has earmuffs) is playing a FB game called Farmville. (There are others, I gather, called Mafia Wars, Vampire Hospital, Pet Salad, and possibly Farkle and Super Farkle, and Bejeweled Blitz and Jungle Jewels. There also may be Yahtzee…but more on that later.) It appears to be some kind of group participation game where you can earn points when people visit it and do things like water crops or harvest or such. However, inexplicably, Kyle begins to lose friends (his counter showing them dropping off.) There is a cut-away to a Cartman podcast where he offers instructions on how to get friends on FB in a Jim Kramer parody called “Mad Friends” wherein stock and a friend count are equated. “Chick friends are worth almost triple what dude friends are” in his promotional view. Kyle decides to go to him for advice.

Meanwhile, Wendy (angry-looking girl with mouth-braces) confronts Stan about Susan92's post "I think you look cute in your bunny costume", not interested in explanation that this is his grandmother. She also demands he update his status to "In a Relationship". Later, he is walking down the street when a random stranger stops his car, accosts him for not “friending” him and then says: “I'm just a guy that gets ignored I guess!”, then, enraged, spits on him and speeds off.

The second half shows Stan trying to get his homework done but neglecting to respond to his FB friends, his father telling him "Stan, poke your Grandma!" Then, Cartman, schooling Kyle, suggests he go on Chat Roulette to gain new friends. Kyle demurs, saying, “It’s justa bunch of guys jacking off!” And, sure enough, that’s what they encounter one after another, leading to Cartman’s pithy summation: “To find a good friend, you've gotta wade through a lot of dicks.”

Then comes the adventure part of the show, wherein, Stan, frustrated by the waste of his time, tries to delete his account and becomes literally sucked into FB a la the old computer game fantasy movie, “Tron”. In that movie, the master CPU turned programmer—“user”—Jeff Bridges into a game piece and forced him to compete in his own creations, with the threat of elimination of his actual reality outside of the game. The games were all in glowing neon and featured high-speed grid running or “Space Invaders”-type shooters. Here, however, Stan has to play Yatzhee—an old school board game with dice—and wins every time. He is told that, in order to get out of FB, he has to find and battle his own “profile”, and, in order to do that, he has to find it. Here, Stan goes onto Kyle’s FB page and tells him to locate it for him, but first has to do something to help out on his farm. Instead, Stan begins kicking the crops until Kyle tells him he is hosting an online chat party for all his “friends”--almost 1,000,000 people—at Café World.

Meanwhile, there is a cut-away to Kip enjoying quality time with his new “friend” by taking a laptop to the movies and putting it on the next seat. (Poignant and creepy.) The climax is Stan—again—playing Yahtzee, only against his monstrous doppelganger, and winning with one throw. Shortly thereafter, he reappears in the material world and, when confronted by his father as to why they are no longer “friends” tells him to fuck off. Then, Kyle “un-friends” Pip, leaving him near-suicide when suddenly, all Stan’s friends are given to him.

And that’s pretty much it.

After all that, you’d think: “Oh, this must be a terrific fan in disguise to have gone into such detail.” No, all this was culled from chat rooms on the ep. The fanbase is rabid and ardent, but also varied. Within this world, I found slavish devotion, curiously unbalanced perceptions, petulance, and as well solid critiques and even a bit of historical perspective. And a lot of bad spelling.

However, that’s not the point of this.

As said up top, what has come to mind is how demands are made to participate in completely superfluous events because it is expected, and anticipated. Just not by you. By others. It is not even that these activities are not important to those others either. They can be. Stepping out of the SP view of FB and into a rather limited, first-hand, brush with the site, one thing came clear immediately. The service called “update status” or “profile update”. It comes, seemingly out of nowhere, unbidden, and arrives on your computer (or PDA or phone) with all the authority of a stop sign. It may not MEAN, “PLEASE RESPOND”, but neither does a ringing phone MEAN “ANSWER ME!” And neither of them means “PAY ATTENTION TO ME! I’M IMPORTANT TO YOU!”

But they do, don’t they?

And this is where those metaphors come in handy as perfect cliches: like the stickiness of the Web, the inescapability of the Net and the magnetic pull of polar opposites. Any competent writer could create extended metaphors from more obscure forms but these are so natural, they would seem made for the job. (This is where the transcendence part comes in again.) I’d like to think it was all McLuhan’s doing—from the premise that all media are extensions of the human organism, senses and capabilities in particular—but he wasn’t around when the Internet was created in 1972. Still and all, we’ve learned to appreciate how present concepts can anticipate future developments beyond their immediate application and follow language to that place, and some of that was from him. I mean, he wrote “The Medium is the Message” before changing it to “The Medium is the Massage”. Was he seeing the way newscasts would become ego-stroke-books or was it just a “hands-on” approach?

In order to appreciate the prescience of the Marshall, you need a bit more post-science too.

Which brings up the story of “mands” and “tacts”. In the world of Behaviorism there are two giants which most people know: Pavlov and B.F. Skinner—the former for the dogs, the latter for the rats. But there’s more. In 1957, Skinner published Verbal Behavior. With this ambitious volume, he wanted to apply his form of operant conditioning to language learning, saying that a sentence is merely part of “a behavior chain, each element of which provides a conditional stimulus for the production of the succeeding element.” So, part of that is figuring out just what those elements are, and here are two salient ones. Mands (short for deMANDS) are defined as utterances (note: whimpers and groans communicate just as well) that are reinforced by the elevation of deprivation. Utterances (note: they can be grunts as well) that are produced when the speaker is not deprived are called tacts (short for conTACT). Tacts are verbalizations (or sounds) that the speaker produces to provide information instead of attending to states of deprivation. While on the surface, tacts and mands may seem similar, their underlying motivations (stimuli) and their reinforcements are different. When a mand is reinforced, the need is sated. When a tact is reinforced, there is no need to sate.

Yes, and that and $2 will still not get you any closer to a Tall Starbucks Regular Blend.

You see, this is EXACTLY what this whole shebang has been about. When you break it down to wants, needs and desires, the Individual doesn’t require attention; it just WANTS, and feels a lack of satiation. Mands need, but sometimes don’t need anyTHING. Tacts are more tactful, similar in many respects to eye conTACT or a head-nod, a tip of the cap. Nonsense, and not necessary, but nonetheless… And this has been proven time and again under strictly-controlled laboratory conditions and in multiple orders and environments. It is approaching a Law of Behavior, ok?

(After his book was published and critiqued by Noam Chomsky, Skinner failed to respond immediately to the issues and problems raised. His slow response coupled with both a growing disdain for the behaviorist paradigm and the influence of technology, computers, and information processing led to the strengthening of the cognitive movement in psychology and other social sciences. In other words: he was definitely right as far as that went, but HE LOST STATUS!)

So, is a Tweet more of a mand than an FB update is a tact? Or is it the other way round? That is not the question, however. It is more like: Why bother?

There is little more ephemeral than electronic communications, but also little difference between a mand or tact, in e-mail form, than a whim or even an impulse, despite the fact that one satiates a need and the other doesn’t. Such thoughts, without composition, are no different than autonomous functions; a gesture barely one step up from a knee jerk. And just because you think something needs to be said, it doesn’t mean it needs to be heard.

Interruption Science is the study of what happens when one activity is presumptively halted (usually by exterior forces) without explanation or consideration, in favor of another. In the modern world, this has become epidemic, as more and more we attempt multi-tasks that require the monitoring of many activities simultaneously—like the magician trying to keep a dozen plates spinning—all it takes is one lapse of attention and BANG! Schnabeleens… Not to get too pedantic about it, but to give you some statistics, it has been calculated that when you are on the computer and working on some project, you can get an e-mail or phone call or someone walk-in and say I need this right away. So you go ahead and TCB. However, that isn’t the end of it. You are just as likely to spend no more than 11 minutes before that one is interrupted, and those are as likely to be some three-minute segments as well. Then you want to get back to where you were, ok? This is not to say you can’t just jump back in, BUT, in clinically-tested studies, it averages out to 25 minutes before you can, given the complexity of the task as well. Now that is a heavy toll on efficiency, sure. Then consider our buddy Coleridge. “Kubla Khan” was a poem he was composing in the midst of a drug-fueled paroxysm of creation, and was interrupted by “a person from Porlock.” For being only some ten lines which he could remember, it is still one of those pieces most often quoted (and an inspiration for the Canadian Rock gods, RUSH to write “Xanadu”…and maybe even “Closer To The Heart” as the chord progressions—uh, I don’t want to start something else right now…) and most speculated upon as to what the rest of it might have been like…had not that person from Porlock come a-knockin’.

To return to something said earlier, there is a factor in thinking which I call “background processing”. It is, in other terms, as well, “day-dreaming”, “idling”, “a brown study”, “woolgathering”, “meditating”, “musing” and even just “fucking off”. You’ve heard about it before, in various places and such guises aforesaid, but what it really means is sort of like ‘thinking about nothing…to think about something’. This is how scientists come up with those “Eureaka!” moments when they have theoretic breakthroughs. It is all about how you fill the head with as much intelligence and data as you can, and then—well, the process really is something similar to letting a pot come to boil. No one can tell you exactly how they got from A to B, but they are just as frequently A to Z—it’s almost that startling, in many cases. Of course, if you call up Newton and say, Yo, Ike, whassup? and Ike says, Nothing, whas by you, dog?—he may have been on the verge of falling asleep, true, but just as possibly on the verge of starting the Enlightenment.

You don’t have to be in an opium trance to write a dream, but it helps…and more if you can languidly stretch out your arm across satin pillows and poppy-smoke billows to finger quill, ink and parchment at the ready to begin following a delicate-yet-rhythmic line of image-into-text as it flows from the soft tissue where dawn and dusk hide in hyperbolic arcs until BANGBANGBANG! ALLOALLO! MRCOLERIDGEYOUINTHERE? And Ike was probably going to find his way to a theory of optics, anyways…but maybe not on that particular day.

A while back, one of the entries quoted John Donne’s meditation 17 ( so a further cite is off limits., but this still goes as far as the connectivity thing aforestated herein: the spider’s Web, the drag Net, the way positive charges can’t escape from negative charges, etc. I need inputs of all kinds from all sources; that’s a given. But there are stretches when I must ignore EVERYTHING that is not part of…something else—but specifically “THAT” [which stands in for “EVERYTHING that is part of”]. And this does not mean I do not want that contact or input, but JUST NOT RIGHT NOW! When it look most like I’m wandering about aimlessly, it MAY be so, but is just as likely that I’M NOT EVEN HERE. If it is really important, make it fast and I’ll deal with it. But if you want more of my time than a scan-&-reply, be prepared to wait.

It should be clear by now where this came from and is going. No point in prolonging. On the Simpsons, I’d be Lisa not Bart. In Warner Bros. cartoons, I’d be Daffy more often than Bugs, sorry to say. In SP, Stan. I don’t want to tell the world (or Randy) to f*ck-off…but yeah, I do.

So how is this all related to FZ’s song?

Everything else is just status. Long ago I figured that the rich, thin, and famous were always going to be at the top of the pyramid and then found out it was for no good reason other than people paying attention to them. It may have meant something to me in high school, but I am so far from that now I can’t even remember whether those brown spots on my back are incipient melanomas or acne scars. It is almost the definition of the term “juvenile”…as much as SP is today, what “Beavis & Butthead” were before, and on into the past of our animated doppelgangers, and, allowing for convention and adaptation of formulas, on into puppetry to “Punch and Judy” and beyond. Like Commedia del’Arte, they may wear the cloaks of buffoons but are just as certainly our stalking horses for the limits of social intercourse. (Here you may insert a snickering simpering Butthead…)

The impression I got from SP (as well as a funny bit done by Dimitri Martin on “The Daily Show” a few years back) is that what counts is the number of “friends” you have—not whether or not you could hold a decent conversation with any of them. (“Chick friends are worth almost triple what dude friends are,” don’t forget!) Of course, both were done as jokes, right? So nobody takes that seriously, right? And why are jokes funny? It is of many opinions that they tell some essential truth about ourselves, but in such a manner that the recognition factor is turned and the burn of embarrassment becomes sublimated into a gasp of astonishment which produces laughter.

So, it’s stupid, but true, right?

I don’t want to think about this stuff. Status is only good for making one feel superior to another, and it only exists in a universe where there are values more important than mine. I don’t mean Laws or Morals or Ethics—just Values. (Now I know why this sounds familiar: it was one of the entries in the Brain blog.) Is this selfish? You bet. Is it wrong? No way. If I give you my time and I place no value on it, then I am giving you nothing and saying, by implication, you are worthless as well. On the other hand, if I do place a high number on the word count/face time, you are getting a really good return on your investment of a couple of minutes or hours. (As opined earlier: “To find a good friend, you've gotta wade through a lot of dicks.” Sage counsel, indeed. I would hesitate to call him the Buddah of the show, but he does exhibit some of the insights of Bacchus.) And that’s better for all concerned.

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