Station Eleven is a difficult book to summarize. Covering a tight but dynamic set of main characters and a sprawling timeline, the book layers settings, memories, people, and situations, jumping back and forth between a world devastated by a pandemic, the early moments of the disaster, and the years and decades before the event. But most of all, the book explores a range of themes: loneliness, longing, belonging, meaning, and survival.
But, if anything, the core tenet of a post-apocalyptic roving Shakespearean acting troupe and orchestra acts as a sort of leitmotif, even a mantra, lurking in the back of most scenes and tying the text together: “Survival is insufficient.” What we mean by survival, what we do to attain it, and what it may mean to transcend it.
So it is once a book about plague, about Shakespeare and acting, about failed relationships and drifting conversations, about loneliness and hope, and most of all, about what it means to live.
I listened to Station Eleven during a series of long car rides a few years ago, and I found myself hooked. I had wanted to read it during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic but lacked the mindset, preferring escapism to reflections on a pandemic-ravaged world. Revisiting it then, over a year and half later, I felt more distant, more ready to reflect. And a few things struck me. So I started reflecting on some of those changes. I put it, as well as a lot of non-required writing, on hold. Here are some of those thoughts, though rather late.
Different media allows different experiences. Books let your imagination work. Movies integrate dialogue, visuals, music, and editing. Audio has a unique intimacy.
Games, too, allow unique experiences.
While I could talk more about some more specifics–like how games are a highly interactive form of media–I mainly want to focus on two games that have been on my mind lately with the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent pixel art game called Wash Your Hands (2020) and the classic cooperative board game Pandemic (2008).
Both address a similar issue, outbreak, in starkly different ways, showcasing the breadth of games as media. But at the same time, I think they also have a lot in common, namely the ability to clarify abstractions in novel ways.
Pandemic: Modelling Outbreak
Pandemic (2008) is a relatively known board game designed by Matt Leacock, designer of Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert, where 2-4 players work together to combat and eventually eradicate a series of diseases across the planet.
The gameplay fundamentals are simple. On each turn, the player uses four actions to navigate the board, fight disease, and find a cure. Then, at the end of the turn, they draw two “player cards” that grant new actions but also contain “epidemic” cards that intensify the disease. After the player cards, they draw a set of “infection cards” based on the infection rate and place more disease tokens on the board to simulate the spread of the overall infection. The players must defeat the diseases by finding all four cures before the pandemic spreads too much, leading to their defeat.
Pandemic is a “simulation” game, a game that takes something from real life and models it by using rules and game components. Players then interact with that model, creating different outcomes based on their decisions. In a game about pandemics, this modelling has some thought-provoking parallels.
For one, the explosive spread of certain outbreaks bares a spooky resemblance to reality, along with the relentless growth of the diseases. As players tend one part of the map, another part may quickly get out of hand. Much like real life, the more a city or network of cities is infected, the more quickly the virus grows. Just as we are being told to stay inside to slow exposures and reduce simultaneous cases, “flattening the curve,” players need to constantly monitor and combat cases, keeping them from hitting a critical mass that overwhelms the system.
Last, the different specialists that players play as, ranging from a scientist who can more easily research a cure to the quarantine expert who reduces the spread of new cases, highlight the need for different expertise and cooperation. Players are more effective when pooling their skills and responding to new situations as a team. This fits our current situation: people are more effective working together and pooling resources and abilities–though this isn’t always how things are working out.
However, like any simulation, Pandemic is not perfect. In the card-driven spread of the virus, the disease spreads to whatever site you pull from the deck, regardless of nearby contagion. But, more importantly, the game sidesteps casualties: the human fallout of failure. This leads me to Wash Your Hands.
Wash Your Hands: Cultivating Reflection and Empathy
As Katherine Isbister argues in How Games Move Us, games, like any media, have a unique ability to affect us emotionally. Sometimes this can be quite blunt. For example, Isbister discusses Brenda Romero’s game Train, in which players must fit people, symbolized by yellow pegs, on a train, the goal being to fit as many as possible. After a period of time, the train’s destination gets revealed: Auschwitz. Romero said her goal was for players to feel “complicit,” and players often get a deep sense of guilt and regret.
As a less direct emotional experience, Isbister also cites “flow,” when one gets so engrossed in an activity that they leave self-preoccupation behind. Many games accomplish this, but the game Journey was specifically designed to accomplish this, with its yawning, moving landscape, ambient sound design, and constant movement toward a distant goal.
In Wash your Hands, you control an avatar walking in a cemetery, leaving flowers. The catch is that each grave signifies a COVID-19 death, updated as the death statistics update.
Unlike Pandemic, the gameplay is extremely simple, aligning it more closely to a “walking simulator” than a traditional game. It’s all the little things that add to the experience.
First the graphics, simple and understated with largely muted colors. The simplicity contrasts with the action-hero aesthetic of Pandemic, letting the number of graves, neatly organized in prim rows, speak for itself.
Next, you have the opening screens:
The opening immediately instills a hush with the tally of confirmed cases and deaths, followed by the number of roses left by players and the comforting yet haunting words: “You may feel isolated, but you are not alone. . . . Follow in the footsteps of the mourner before you.”
From this hush, the ambient noise of a forest accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar accompanies the transition to the main game: your avatar in a cemetery surrounded by trees. Then, one simply walks.
Your footsteps leave ghostly traces with a soft crunch of snow audible with each step. Here, the pacing is important, especially when accompanied by the footfall sound. It is slow and meditative.
You then start to come across roses, strewn in the snow. You pluck them up and place them in front of graves with a simple gesture.
But mostly, you are walking, listening to the music, watching the grids of white space and headstone pass by, knowing that each one signifies a human life lost to the disease.
Conclusion: The Power of Clarity
Both Pandemic and Wash Your Hands center on the spread of disease, but they take up their subject matter in completely different ways. But both, in a sense, are teaching tools, or at the very least, tools of clarification.
Amid this tragic pandemic, I have been coming back to issues of clarity–of making sense of things. Because, it’s difficult. The numbers are staggering and relentless. The variables are incalculable. The timeline is shifting and daunting. Not to mention all the information, misleading or accurate.
Amid the noise, tragedy, and acrimony, the power of clarity amid crisis proves more important, as well as the ethical, thoughtful communicators who persist, despite challenges.
I don’t think these games are as important as most of the rhetoric out there regarding this pandemic–though, I think Wash Your Hands is a potent message and experience–but I hope that they help us reflect on the important role that media, of all types, have when shaping our world.
This afternoon, the Senate–after weeks of rancor and the bathetic hem-hawing of folks like Flake–will vote in Kavanaugh as the Ninth Justice of the current Supreme Court. I should technically say that they “likely” or “all-but-certainly” will, but precision devalues the sheer force pushing confirmation. So, unless God himself smites the Capitol Monty-Python style, hello Chief Justice Kavanaugh.
All of these are important conversations, as are the testimonies of Ford and Kavanaugh, the political background of Kavanaugh, the procedural issues of the confirmation, the veracity of his two other accusers, and many more issues. However, I mainly want to focus on the arguments of those in favor of the Kavanaugh vote, as I see them.
I want to take these at face value, though I suspect like so much in this era, they lack the sincerity of their delivery. I do this knowing that it makes no difference. Having called public servants, donated to causes, talked with friends, and gone to protests–done all in my current power, in other words–I feel that it may at-best be an intellectual exercise. Nevertheless, as a teacher and student of rhetoric, I think it’s important to look at the arguments that govern major political and policy decisions and define our country for our lifetimes and beyond.
As such, I see three main arguments, summarized and addressed below. And, yes, I am biased. I do not want Kavanaugh, but being biased does not preclude academic fairness. And frankly, I don’t think these arguments deserve that fairness, but many Americans (cough, Republicans) support him, so here we go.
Here is my introduction as part of a round table at the 2018 Computers and Writing Conference at George Mason:
As Bruce McComiskey describes in his recent Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition, “fake news” has become another means to validate and circulate falsehoods, facilitated by social media and an audience’s desire to share and support this erroneous news. But it goes beyond this. As Collin Brooke argues in “How Trump Broke/red the Internet,” many people critiquing articles share them, causing it to trend, and beyond human agents, bots share and comment. “The Spread of True and False News Online” by Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy, Sinan Aral finds that fake news tends to spread faster than truthful sources on Twitter.
As an example, fake news offers a sticky paradox: opponents of “post-truth” are often hampered in their fight by broader histories of habit (especially in the media), infrastructure, and economic goals and models. While this brief introduction does not have the space to detail this, I want to describe what I mean, why it’s significant, and two approaches.
A Backdrop: Media and Post-Truth Rhetoric
In terms of these histories of habit, Michael X. Delli Carpini argues in “Alternative facts,” “Rather than an exception, ‘Trumpism’ is a culmination of trends that has been occurring for several decades” (18). The blur between news and entertainment, the weakening of traditional gatekeepers, and the growth of what Carpini calls a “multiaxial” and “hyperreal” media landscape, where contradictory news co-exists and information often replaces the underlying material reality it represents—all of these represent long-standing trends contributing to Trump and post-truth rhetoric.
Mainstreaming fringe discourse also contributes. As Waisborg et al argue in “Trump and the Great Disruption in Public Communication,” mainstream news offered platforms for fact-free, intolerant discourse from formerly fringe groups, and as Zeynep Tufekci argued in a recent New York Times op-ed, algorithms on sites like YouTube often draw viewers to more extreme content. Angela Nagel, in Kill all Normies, and a recent report from Whitney Phillips in Data and Society also point out this mainstreaming, highlighting the role of trolls. Furthermore, as Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression highlights: the digital infrastructure often enforces hegemony and racism.
As rhetoric has long been central to public deliberation, we need to teach what has become of this deliberation. While political enmity, fractured discourse, and fake news are not new—from Ancient Athens killing Socrates to the strife of Reconstruction—our media landscape is. And I think two points bare deeper scrutiny.
First, as Zizi Papacharissi argues in Affective Publics, we often underestimate the role affect in public debate. This is especially true today, as her work with social media shows. Many of these point-and-click economies rely on affect, often stoking social change—or the means for it—through revenue models, forming “affective publics” as networks organize online and offline. Many legacy media outlets also rely on affect to draw and maintain viewers, informing coverage. While we, as a field, may often prioritize logos and ethos in writing, we need to recognize affect and its ability to circumvent other appeals—through humans and interfaces.
Second, much as the digital humanities has advocated working with computer science departments while developing computer literacies of our own, I think we need to connect with media and journalism. As public rhetoric often takes place through news—fake or otherwise, on television or through Facebook—we need to connect with those who do this work, how it is done, its history, and how it circulates. In other words, we need to interrogate the whole structure, not just consumer media habits and literacies.
Patricia Roberts-Miller argues in Demagoguery and Democracy that demagoguery comes from an underlying culture. Even as we fight the daily battles of post-truth rhetoric, we must also—per our energy’s allowance—combat the underlying war, as it pervades our media, politics, and daily lives.
Bockowski, Pablo J. and Zizi Papacharissi, eds. Trump and the Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2018.
Brooke, Collin Gifford. “How #Trump Broke/red the Internet” Skinnell 122-141.
Carpini, Michael X. Delli. “Alternative Facts : Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New U.S. Media Regime.” Bockowski and Papacharissi 17-24.
McComiskey, Bruce. Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2017.
Nagle, Angela. Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2017.
Papacharissi, Zizi. Affective Publics : Sentiment, Technology, and Politics. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Phillips, Whitney. “The Oxygen of Amplification.” Data and Society. 22 May 2018. Web.
Roberts-Miller, Patricia. Demagoguery and Democracy. New York, NY: The Experiment, 2017.
Skinnell, Ryan, ed. Faking the News: What Rhetoric Can Teach Us About Donald J. Trump. Exeter, UK: Imprint, 2018.
Tufekci, Zeynep. “YouTube, The Great Radicalizer.” The New York Times. 10 March 2018. Web.
Vosoughi, Soroush, Deb Roy, Sinan Aral. “The Spread of True and False News Online.” Science 359.6380 (2018): 1146-1151.
Waisbord, Silvio, Tina Tucker, and Zoey Lichtenheld. “Trump and the Great Disruption in Public Communication.” Bockowski and Papacharissi 25-32.
I’ve been playing a lot of Stardew Valley lately. The pixel-graphics farm RPG has enjoyed a one-year anniversary this past Feb. 26, but mostly I’ve found the game to be a bit of an escape as Syracuse’s nickel grey March and school’s looming deadlines deepen a seasonal depression.
For those of you who have not playedStardew Valley, the plot is simple. Inheriting your grandfather’s rustic farm in the bucolic Stardew Valley, you start with some lose coins and tools and gradually nurture the farm back to health, interacting with the community and the surrounding countryside–from mysterious woods, to mines, to the ocean–as you plant and harvest seeds, forage, mine, and care for animals. Like any RPG, you level up your skills, from crafting and combat, and build relationships with NPCs by giving gifts and completing small quests. The player can eventually get married and raise a family.
The game has some overlap with the Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing series, placing the player as a caretaker enmeshed in a community. The simple music, pixel graphics, and winsome, quirky cut-scenes have their charm, and while the mechanics can get a bit grind-inducing (depending on one’s style and goals), the rhythm of rising, getting set for the day, working, and heading to sleep is a calming metronome that structures your daily actions, whether attending a community celebration, fighting “Slimes” in the mine, or simply fishing away a few hours.
More deeply, though, I kept coming back to what Stardew Valley teaches about Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), especially his notion of sorge, or “caring,” as it’s often translated.
The poet Charles Olson wrote, “Whatever you have to say, leave/ The roots on, let them/ Dangle/ And the dirt/ Just to make clear/ Where they come from.” Words are grimed, caked, and clotted with decades of use and wrinkled with age. Some words and phrases become anachronistic, like “winding” a window down in a world of electric windows. Others carry an explosive politics. Many get bleached by the endless passing of palms, losing a clear meaning.
But at a deeper sense, Olson’s line reminds me that we need to inspect our language in all its dirty history and daily use. To take it step further: Words impact our world, etching our reality like the steady run of water on rock or blowing it up like dynamite.
As George Orwell wrote, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” His classic 1984 also stresses the coercive and meaning-making power of language through “newspeak,” the official language of Oceania that uses simplicity and structure to limit free thought. For example, “bad” no longer exists; instead, one has “ungood.” By limiting expression, one limits thought. This, among other reasons, hits at the danger of censorship and its popularity among totalitarian regimes.
With the tax bill passing Friday being touted as a “win” by Republicans, despite potential blowback, I keep coming back to an idea I’ve been nursing for a few weeks now: winning in politics. Phrases like Trump’s “you’ll be tired of winning” and reporter’s “Republicans need a win” saturate public discourse, and I keep asking what “winning” means. Like most buzzwords,”winning” leaves much unsaid–and unthought–but it still exerts its influence. And in this case, “winning” isn’t a good thing. What I call a “rhetoric of winning,” this trend to frame things as “wins,” feels like a significant danger for our current American politics.
Winning immediately brings up positive images. Triumph. Trophies. Confetti. The climax of a sports movie when our underdog protagonists finally overcome the big, mean team. But these positive feelings overlook two key things: opponents and win/loss binaries.
I was just reading Cathy O’Neil’s (@mathbabedotorg) New York Times piece on the tech industry and academia, which argues how academics have not done enough to study issues caused by recent technology, including filter bubbles and big data. Others have already critiqued some of the tone and oversights of the piece, with varying degrees of sass, but I want to look at it as a rallying cry. While I think the piece could give more credit to current researchers, it recognizes a dangerous gap between this research and the tech industry.
A few of O’Neil’s points are especially key. For one, she notes how big data is often cloistered in companies, reducing access to academics. She also notes how private companies hire academics, and she describes how funding that drives engineering and computer science programs may not include more humanities-tinged concerns for the ethical, social dimensions of technology.
More contentiously, O’Neil also says, “There is essentially no distinct field of academic study that takes seriously the responsibility of understanding and critiquing the role of technology — and specifically, the algorithms that are responsible for so many decisions — in our lives.” While a distinct field of study may be harder to name and locate, plenty of sub-fields and inter-disciplinary work hits at this exact issue. For example, in rhet-comp, Kevin Brock and Dawn Shepherd discuss algorithms and their persuasive power and Jessica Reyman has analyzed issues of authorship and copyright with big data. Beyond rhet-comp, danah boyd continues to write on these issues, along with work from the University of Washington.
But a gap remains to some extent, despite this research.
Personally, I see two potential reasons: hubris and tech’s failure to consider social media more critically. Regarding hubris, George Packer’s “Change the World” (2013) explores Silicon Valley’s optimism and their skepticism of Washington. After describing how few start-ups invest in charity, for instance, Packer writes:
At places like Facebook, it was felt that making the world a more open and connected place could do far more good than working on any charitable cause. Two of the key words in industry jargon are “impactful” and “scalable”—rapid growth and human progress are seen as virtually indistinguishable. One of the mottoes posted on the walls at Facebook is “Move fast and break things.” Government is considered slow, staffed by mediocrities, ridden with obsolete rules and inefficiencies.
This leads me to my second thought. In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger distinguishes between the ready-at-hand and the present-at-hand. The former refers to how we normally go through life, interacting with objects without much reflective thought, while the later refers to the way a scientist or philosopher may look at stuff. In his hammer example, Heidegger says that we normally use a hammer without much second thought, but once the hammer breaks, we reflect on what it is or does.
Similarly, with the ugly realities of social media surfacing more, we are more apt to examine and reflect. Before it “broke,” we used it as a neutral tool to communicate and pontificate digitally. As long as we continue to see social media as a neutral tool, or a tool just needing tweaks or fixes, we miss considering what social media is within a broader context of culture, economics, and society. We may be waking up to these deeper questions now, but we can’t fall back on present-for-hand approaches to use and design.
As Lori Emerson (2014) argues, companies rush to intuitive designs and ubiquitous computing, but we must consider how these trends blackbox the values and potentials of our tools. As Emerson and others argue, we can challenge these trends with firmer technological understanding, more democratized development, and the resistance of hackers and activists.
But with tech having so much power, I am not optimistic for change without a broader attitudinal shift in tech and elsewhere. I only see incremental changes coming, like increased fact checkers and algorithmic tweaks. These are good and may lead to significant change in time, but fundamental outlooks in tech–what philosophers may call instrumental rationality–will likely stay the same. Many critique the Ivory Tower for its obsession with present-at-hand abstraction, but the Silicon Tower seems just as dangerous with its present-for-hand reduction.
[Image: “Hacker” by the Preiser Project, via Creative Commons]
When reading Plato’s Gorgias and Phaedrus dialogues, as well as the Dissoi Logoi and Gorgias’ “Ecomium,” three motifs struck me: the role of relativism, the act of teaching rhetoric, and the power of language. I also couldn’t help but meld some of these readings with where my head is at lately, so I think I’ll start there.