The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

It's Basically Fucking Ridiculous That Sense8 Got Cancelled

Sense8 is dead. But all the pieces were there for it to be revolutionary. I don't even have a good summary for this article I'm just fucking pissed that we had all these pieces in place and still for some reason it didn't come together, and I'm left with this multi-part series that I wrote most of before the show was cancelled so like what the fuck. Here's some bewildered rambling about tech history I guess.










Here's the thing about my prediction about Sense8 being the future of TV. It was made under some... assumptions.

Assumptions like, oh, I don't know, it wasn't about to get CANCELED ON THE FIRST DAY OF FUCKING PRIDE MONTH.

It turns out that once again my predictive power extends only to horrible things, which I'm incredibly prescient about. I should pretty much just stop making positive predictions, though.

In my defense, however, the pieces were all there. Everything was lined up. Netflix just had to do things like promote the season, and complete the infrastructure, and the fandom had to... well the fandom had to be, apparently, quite a bit bigger than I thought it was. That was another assumption, it turns out: of course the queer circles I run in all were going nuts for the show, but the wider internet just doesn't seem to have picked it up. That's, of course, another whole layer of frustration to all this.

Why didn't people pick it up? Well, it could be because the world isn't ready for a single narrative that has, in effect, eight completely separate stories of roughly equal weight, particularly not one that is so seemingly indifferent to the order in which those narratives are told. I mean, the separate streams of our favorite sensates intersect at various points but the order in which you come to each scene is, as I discussed last time, a little bit arbitrary. It's not exactly nonlinear, it's more... linear-agnostic. As long as everyone gets to the same place eventually, in effect, HOW you get there doesn't matter that much. And maybe people just aren't ready, or just aren't capable, of following that kind of narrative yet.

I don't think so though. Sense8 might be ahead of the curve but I don't think it's THAT far ahead.

Certainly all the technology we might need is already present here. Sense8 has a storytelling that's particular to our existence in 2017, the 20teens art form, because it's emerging from, and dependent, upon a series of material changes in web technology that enable us to do some really interesting things narratively.

Some of this I've already covered with my work on Homestuck in A Horizon of Jostling Furryosikitties. To recap the much more in depth coverage in the book, what we saw in the last decade was the development of a series of web technologies that make hypertexts (or hypermedia more broadly) more viable. See, it's not that the human mind is incapable of thinking nonlinearly. It's not that we can't put together hypertexts. The fact that websites work at all as something other than just books on a screen demonstrates the fact that we're capable of coming to information in nonlinear or linear-agnostic ways. And print media has adopted nonlinear storytelling for over a century now, in both the basic sense of stories being told deliberately out of order, and in more complex senses of books that fold strangely back on themselves, as with something like House of Leaves.

No, the central struggle is not an issue of human capability but instead focuses on material concerns: how do you put together a hypertext that is marketable, that you can make a living off of, that can be shared effectively, and that is relatively easy to produce?

I don't think it makes sense to ignore, for example, the fact that the internet of today is radically different from the internet of just a decade ago. There were fundamental limitations of speed and on ease-of-production (limited, expensive, proprietary software being a huge one) that made hypermedia production and distribution more difficult. As obvious as it might seem, it's worth noting explicitly that Netflix in particular is only possible because of the development of high speed internet capacity. Netflix wouldn't exist without that development in technology. Flat out.

Similarly, I think the development of html5 as a replacement for Flash is pretty critical. While I don't agree with the effective blacklisting of Flash by Google and Firefox, which is having a catastrophic effect on the playability of old games, hypercomics, and animations, Flash was also a black box, closed-source disaster produced by a company indifferent to the program's wellbeing, or that of its users. So I'd suggest that the development of open source tech--HTML5, Javascript, and so on--has made Netflix and streaming sites generally much more viable, because videos can be handled natively now within HTML's specifications.

That's a lot of technical stuff but the really important point here is that a whole bunch of technology emerged over the last decade, enabling a ton of shit. What shit, you ask, uncouthly? Well the first obvious thing that comes to my mind is the ease of rewatching. I grew up with a VCR, because I'm basically a dusty skeleton, and what I learned during my childhood is that VCRs are not dependable. Things can and will go wrong with your attempts to tape your favorite shows. It turns out it's pretty difficult to both get VCRs to not eat your tapes, or get the tv guide (it came with the newspaper each week!) to tell you the proper time for the latest Disney Original Movie or whatever. If you're watching stuff long term, as much as there is a certain difficulty in depending on unstable internet connections, the fact that there's a database somewhere containing the entirety of Sense8, and this database is (hopefully) going to remain stable relatively long term (let's leave questions about digital preservation for another day...) makes it way easier to consistently return to the same material again and again. Oh and you can return with greater pinpoint accuracy than ever before. No more rewinding and fast forwarding tapes, and no more finding the DVD chapter then fast forwarding to where in the scene you left off.

This all enables greater complexity in shows. I mean, I think people have always attempted high levels of TV complexity even within limited infrastructure, but now shows are supported by a much better infrastructure, one that to a far greater degree enables you to go back and pour over shows. Rapid, on-demand streaming has made the deep rewatch possible.

Moreover, it's made the kind of processes a show like Sense8 benefits most from way more viable. That's the other piece already present--we've already got the tech and the culture to enable alternate pathways through source material like Sense8.

Which, in fairness, the show does need to an extent. As I discussed last time, there's not necessarily a huge reason for some of these juxtaposed scenes to be montaged together. Often events must be near each other because they happen in roughly the same timeframe but otherwise their juxtapositions are somewhat arbitrary. (And even then time is kind of wobbly here--the rise of Capheus to major governmental candidate seems to happen at lightning speed compared to some of the other storylines. That may just well be sloppiness.)

I mean we can't all be Alan Moore with his hyperdetermined scene transitions, and even with Moore some of his transitions in Watchmen for example come off more as him and Dave Gibbons grandstanding. So it's not like arbitrary juxtapositions are new. However, Sense8's radically different storylines often give off the sense of several pulp films intercut with one another, which can be a bit dizzying. Luckily, the experience of watching this as a streamed show encourages us I think to potentially view these scenes as segments, that we can cut apart and recompose.

Now, what I haven't actually seen is a lot of actual work recomposing Sense8. This sort of surprises me. Fan cuts are a small but notable part of web fandom culture, with projects ranging from the modest "suggested watching order" projects for Buffy and Angel, to full on recuts of Star Wars used to "fix" the films, offering a reconceptualization of the source media. Weirdly, there doesn't seem to be a lot of this kind of thing for Sense8--but more on that in a moment.

A lot of fan cuts proper seem to involve refining and fixing things perceived as flawed. Recutting-as-exploration, recutting just to uncover alternate, non-hierarchical possibilities, seems to be sort of kept in a separate notional space from this. This is the space that projects like Neil Cicierega's Mouth Saga occupy. Mouth Saga, by repeating the same songs within its mixes--most infamously Smash Mouth's "All Star"--becomes an attempt not to discover a legitimate whole work, but an attempt to explore the possibilities opened by the material. In some cases, you can even get what amounts to a kind of criticism of or meditation on the original. I mean, have you ever really thought about the lyrics to One Week? Well, Neil Cicierega's going to make you think very deeply about every damn line.

There are less extreme examples as well, of course. This is something I think is potentially emergent in George RR Martin's work, if only because the fandom decided that it needed to be. The fandom took two A Song of Ice and Fire novels, cut them apart, and repackaged them as a unified text. At that point I think all bets were off. It no longer is that important to worry about the sanctity of the text in terms of linear order of the different scenes. Once we stop caring about linearity we can start doing really radical things, like reading through a single character's perspective or even going weirder, reading every chapter containing a feast scene for example. (It would be a lot of chapters.)

Again, this is linked to the emergence of a bunch of technological affordances. For A Song of Ice and Fire, we have relatively easily edited ebooks allowing for repackaging of the material. For things hosted online, we have things like technologies allowing one to move through Homestuck from character tag to character tag, or from instance to instance of particular symbols. Such affordances allow for existing media to become more hyper.

There are some places where this explorative method of fan cutting emerges for Sense8. Take tumblr gifsets for example. Fandoms currently have, on tumblr, a solid way of producing popular content relatively rapidly: they can take clips from the shows, melt them down into gifs, and stick them together in a set of images. These image sets may be drawn from throughout an episode or a movie or a season but they are linked across a theme or a character or a color palette. While there's an extent to which putting related things from a show together is just, like, basic reading comprehension, a kind of "are you watching closely enough to recognize the basic patterns in this thing" deal, the relative ease of spreading what are essentially recuts in rapidly readable comic-like form (a form that juxtaposes images in space rather than time) lets us see connections much more easily. And Sense8 had the potential to take advantage of that to a much greater degree, assuming to an extent that we'll be participating actively in the show's formation this way.

One of the examples I've seen several people hit upon is an early scene during Season 2 where Lito talks about a scene of kissing on the beach in his favorite movie, juxtaposed with a later scene where he kisses his lover... on the beach. That's pretty simple. It's not something I actually noticed as I was watching the show, though, so these gif sets--these MULTIPLE INSTANCES of the same thing being pulled out--helped me to see connections I would otherwise have missed.

In searching I wasn't able to find gifsets of this, but I think it would be interesting to juxtapose the scenes we get where the cluster's members are lining up behind one another in notional space with the final scenes this season of the cluster navigating physical space in that same way. Like one of the great things this season is the way that, having established the rules last season, this season they've been able to capitalize on the visual iconography to produce these moments where the whole group is moving as a unit, acting as one. And apparently whether in meatspace or sensatespace, they move basically the same way. That's the kind of thing that I think we can pull out and identify actively as connected, and that the show kind of wants us to recompose together.

Of course, I can talk all day about the potential technology here. I can talk about the potential for fan videos. I can talk about how incredible it would have been if Netflix--or hell, just the fanbase--had created a plugin that would automatically shunt you from place to place in the videos depending on what characters or themes you wanted to follow. I can talk about the way this would open up the potential of the series.

But ultimately, for reasons I don't really dare speculate on (though like let's be real, in my heart I'm just going to blame The Straights) Sense8 doesn't seem to have been embraced communities already engaged in the kind of practices I describe here, and Netflix, despite its bizarre insistence that it wants to "push boundaries," has opted to put its weight behind the shows that play it most safe, cancelling Sense8 and The Get Down.

That's a real loss, for the development of hypermedia and for the development of new, radical modes of storytelling. It's not just a question of cool tech not being explored--this loss goes deeper than that, to the heart of what stories we tell and how free we are to explore new perspectives.

And next time, it's that sense of multiple perspectives, and the show's complex and rocky engagement with difference, that we'll be exploring.

If you want a preview of this upcoming material, you can view the drafts of the upcoming articles as I write them for just $1 on Patreon, and you can read my previous book on hypercomics, A Horizon of Jostling Curiosities, (and all my other books!) for just $5.



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