Little Scream — Black Cloud

In late November of 2013, for the second year in a row, I found myself staggering to the end of a six-month battle with the same massive document. As had long become habit, largely to preserve some tenuous connection with life outside the confines of the virtual pages that were my waking reality, I spent much of my writing time listening to several custom stations on Pandora. While I enjoyed the great majority of the songs that played, most of them came and went without intruding on consciousness.

From time to time, however, a particular song would grate on me until I silenced it, and on even rarer occasions a song would seize and hold my attention. Among that small number of mesmerizing songs, before and since, none stands apart like Black Cloud by Laurel Sprengelmeyer, who goes by the stage name Little Scream. In the moment, sixteen months ago, it was arresting in its beauty and ability to transport, and I still feel that way today.

While looking up information on the artist back then I searched for a video but could only find uploads by others, and I didn’t want to link to something that wasn’t officially released. I did find additional songs and performances by Little Scream, but Black Cloud was not among them. Recently, however, I found this:

I listen to a lot of music and I know what I like. Give me the choice between a beat and a groove and I go groove every time. But there’s another thing music can do, and that’s take you on a trip, and that’s what happens each time I listen to Black Cloud. I’m not sure what the musical word for that would be, but my word would be storytelling.

If Black Cloud takes you somewhere, and you like the trip, tell someone when you get back. Musicians in particular have always had a tough time making a living doing what they love, and I don’t think anyone will ever solve that problem. One problem the internet can solve, however, is making sure musicians and other artists who touch us know that their voices matter and are being heard.

Lyrics here. Site here. Album here. Videos here. Another favorite here.

— Mark Barrett

Digital Natives Prefer Print

Ran across an article in the WaPo that was interesting both for its contents and the fact that the paper is now owned by Jeff Bezos, emperor of Amazon:

Frank Schembari loves books — printed books. He loves how they smell. He loves scribbling in the margins, underlining interesting sentences, folding a page corner to mark his place.

Schembari is not a retiree who sips tea at Politics and Prose or some other bookstore. He is 20, a junior at American University, and paging through a thick history of Israel between classes, he is evidence of a peculiar irony of the Internet age: Digital natives prefer reading in print.

Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, it’s definitely worth a read. Despite Silicon Valley prophecy, human beings are apparently not so easily led to the digital light.

— Mark Barrett

Storytelling and Real-World Violence

This is the final post in a series exploring the idea that storytelling, gameplay or entertainment of any kind may precipitate acts of violence in the real world. First post here.

In setting out to prevent mass murder as much as humanly possible you have learned a great deal. Most of what you learned will do nothing to keep anyone from being killed, at least for a long while, but you no longer feel confused. It is understandable that people attribute motive to all kinds of things, including mediums of entertainment, and particularly to mediums that feature violence. It is also true that violent entertainment — along with every other aspect of life — may, in some instances, be a contributing factor in murderous mayhem, but it’s equally clear that there will never be any methodology by which such eventualities can be predicted. Even banning the most violent mediums would do nothing to prevent acts of violence from happening because acts of violence have been a part of human history since long before the invention of entertainment technology.

One thing you are convinced of, which you did not believe before, is that stories do play a big part in violence — but not the fictional kind that people usually blame. Narratives are always hard at work in life, including when people go berserk and start killing, but the most dangerous stories do not come from mediums of entertainment, they come from the omnipresent tension between society and the individual mind. They are persistent fictions that people believe in all the time, not just when the telly is on for a couple of hours or a game is played or a movie is streamed. They are beliefs that may even have no basis in reality, yet people are nonetheless convinced those beliefs not only explain how the world works, they unfailingly reveal how the world should be.

One of the most corrosive of these cultural narratives, by far, is the false belief — the protective fiction, endlessly reinforced by the profit-driven press — that we can ever truly know the motive behind any act of madness. Not only does this widely held mistaken belief lead to waste as everyone tries to assign and avoid blame after an act of madness, it perpetuates the false hope that understanding motive in one instance will enable us to predict and prevent acts of violence in the future. Worse, by pretending that the divination of motive can save lives, the real-world benefits of limiting access to the means of violence go largely unreported, and those who might otherwise consider such options remain perpetually misled about the viability of the choices before them.  Read more ]

Real-World Violence and Means

This post is part of a series exploring the idea that storytelling, gameplay or entertainment of any kind may precipitate acts of violence in the real world. First post here.

Unable to prevent mass murder by focusing on opportunity or motive, you are now reduced to considering how to limit the means of such monstrous acts. From the outset you know this is not a particularly promising approach to protecting innocent lives because almost any object, including the human body itself, can be used to kill. Other than wrapping everyone in a straight jacket it will be impossible to prevent human beings from injuring each other, but with judicious limits it might be possible to decrease the total amount of carnage that berserkers commit in a given calendar year. You won’t ever know who you saved, and you won’t ever be able to keep people from going berserk, and some people will still die, but you might be able to limit some of the fatalities that would otherwise take place when individuals do become homicidal.

Although you rightly abandoned your plan to incarcerate people by the millions based merely on broad suspicion about their potential motives for going berserk, because doing so would still fail to prevent mass murders among the remaining free citizens, your realize that the same was not true for those individuals who were incarcerated. Even allowing for the fact that they might be more likely to go berserk compared with their free counterparts, perhaps as a result of being unjustly imprisoned, by virtue of being locked up the potential for any individual to commit mass murder would plummet. While supervision and isolation would certainly prevent some violent acts from taking place, even in the general population where the opportunity exists to murder people en mass, the means of doing so would simply not exist. Even if prisoners went berserk with regularity, the total amount of damage they could do would be limited — at most — to whatever carnage they could cause with a shank or other weapon before others intervened en mass.

Leaving aside full-blown riots, the likelihood of a single individual going berserk and taking out twenty or ten or even three people in a prison yard is severely limited by the fact that they will rapidly find themselves outnumbered. If they had the right weapons the plan would have a better chance of success, but among all the institutions known to man prisons in particular are notoriously loathe to permit the possession of exactly those weapons that make killing human beings easier. For example, while many prisons allow prisoners to express themselves with paints or drawing materials, including tools that could be repurposed to violence, few prisons allow personal expression through use of chemical agents or explosive devices. Even if you are the baddest of the bad in Cell Block C, the fact that you can’t get your hands on the tools that would allow you to kill many people quickly means you’re limited in the damage you can do.

Unfortunately, when trying to limit carnage outside prison walls such prohibitions do not apply. Not only are people allowed to own a wide variety of products that can be used to kill many people in a short amount of time, as long as those products are legal they can stockpile them for that exact purpose and nobody can tell them you’re not allowed to do so. Only after they’ve gone berserk and killed a bunch of human beings — thus proving that they are criminals if not also mentally ill — can citizens, by law, be deprived of many of the means of mass murder.  Read more ]

Narrative Context and Motive

This post is part of a series exploring the idea that storytelling, gameplay or entertainment of any kind may precipitate acts of violence in the real world. First post here.

In considering the degree to which interactive entertainment may trigger individuals to commit mass murder we have unwittingly fallen into a logical abyss from which we cannot escape. Hand in hand with any brain training that occurs while playing computer games is the narrative context in which interactivity takes place. Because it’s assumed, with some plausible justification, that brain training makes interactive works potentially more dangerous, the narrative aspects of interactive titles tend to be viewed differently when compared with similar narrative elements in passive mediums such as film or television. For example, a movie which depicts the slaughter of tens or hundreds or thousands is presumed to be less potentially harmful than an interactive work which requires the slaughter of tens or hundreds or thousands.

As you’ve come to realize, however, from the point of view of motive this distinction produces no practical or actionable difference. Were we to exclude all interactive works from the marketplace by dialing the clock back thirty years to see if doing so prevented acts of violence from taking place, the answer would clearly be no. Prior to the invention of computer games only a few decades ago there was no shortage of mass murder, serial murder, massacres, atrocities, crimes against humanity and attempts at genocide — meaning whatever it is that motivates such acts on an individual or group basis, the impetus seems to be inherent in human beings, not inherent in mediums of entertainment.

With regard to computer games, however, the question of interactivity and brain-training cuts both ways. If what you’re practicing in a virtual setting is violent, it may also increase your chance of survival if the world actually is overrun by alien invaders, Nazis, terrorists or zombies — all of which currently serve, at least in the United States, as acceptable narrative foils for entertaining and ruthless acts of patriotic or godly barbarism across all mediums. Swap out such socially acceptable antagonists for farm animals, school children or the handicapped and almost anyone would be revolted by the ensuing carnage, let alone by actively participating in such fictional crimes, yet at root the brain-training play mechanics would remain exactly the same. Meaning it’s not the interactivity per se that’s the potential problem, but the context in which that interactivity takes place.

If you’re mowing down horde after horde of evil incarnate — or whatever social, ethnic, political or extraterrestrial group you see as evil — by definition that cannot be bad, at least in a narrative context. On the other hand, mowing down innocents, even using the exact same mechanics, would be not only reprehensible, but dangerous in terms of a specific kind of brain-training we call desensitization — which in itself is also not inherently negative. For example, if you’re afraid of spiders a prescribed round of clinical desensitization may cure you of that problem. On the other hand, if you normally empathize and sympathize with your fellow man, but find that spending a few days or months or years fiddling with a murder simulator erodes your reluctance to go on a real-world killing spree, that would obviously not be a good thing.  Read more ]

Interactive Entertainment and Motive

This post is part of a series exploring the idea that storytelling, gameplay or entertainment of any kind may precipitate acts of violence in the real world. First post here.

While children aren’t more hostile or violent than adults, and on the whole seem to do a lot less damage, on average they do seem a bit more cognitively pliable. This is partly explained by the fact that their brains have not fully developed, and partly because they haven’t had time to learn what’s right and wrong in many cultural contexts. If a child is angry it may seem, from the point of view of the child, like a perfectly reasonable response to pick up a toy and start bashing someone. If the child is fortunate, that decision then leads to a reasoned teaching moment about social norms from a nearby adult. Precisely because children need to learn what society expects and how to control their emotions, however, it does seem prudent to watch out for influences that could teach behaviors which are the opposite of what society desires.

In that context the first thing we can say about attempts to blame any medium of entertainment for acts of real-world violence committed by anyone of any age is that we are justified in making a distinction between groups that are and are not likely to be influenced. Our concern, as it was with the mentally ill, is that children may have a harder time distinguishing fantasy from reality, meaning the more a given medium replicates reality the more likely it might be that children could possibly become confused or led astray. For example, while we don’t believe that watching a violent movie over and over will make the average adult more likely to commit acts of violence, we do think — again, with some plausible justification — that doing so might affect a child, or perhaps even a group of young people if such experiences are communal. In response to such concerns, movies have long been given content ratings so busy adults do not have to preview each title in order to know if it’s appropriate for younger viewers.

As to which mediums of entertainment we should be most concerned about, that’s a more complicated question because blaming mediums of entertainment for acts of violence is not a rational pursuit. Not only can any medium of entertainment be used to demonstrate, depict or dramatize acts of violence, violence is routinely used in all mediums for the express purpose of entertaining an audience. When it comes to scapegoating or assigning blame to mediums for acts of carnage, however, there is almost always a perceptible bias toward some mediums and away from others. While usually self-serving, such scapegoating has appeal because it provides an apparently plausible rationale for tragic events that would otherwise remain uncertain as to cause. Even better, having done our civic duty and singled out one medium for blame, we can then go back to lustily enjoying bloodbaths and unspeakable acts of cruelty in the presumably innocent mediums of entertainment we prefer.

The idea that any medium of entertainment is incapable of triggering or contributing to a berserk act is of course nonsense, if only because — as we’ve maddeningly discovered — we can never know for certain what motivates such behavior. If a medium of entertainment can be experienced by human beings, and if we can never predict what will trigger someone to go berserk, then either all mediums of entertainment have the capacity to trigger berserk behavior or none of them do. Since we generally seem to agree — at least for children and the mentally ill, if not sane adults — that mediums of entertainment can influence behavior, then we have to allow for such influence across all mediums.  Read more ]

Mental Health and Motive

This post is part of a series exploring the idea that storytelling, gameplay or entertainment of any kind may precipitate acts of violence in the real world. First post here.

Because acts of violence spring from the mind, and because acts of mass violence are generally seen as crazy by most people, it’s easy to conclude that any such act is a sign of mental illness — even as those who commit such acts may feel they have acted rationally. This is in fact the problem with our generic scenario, where the killer passed all mental health tests with flying colors, yet still perpetrated an act so heinous it would be characterized as insane by most. In order to resolve this ambiguity we could have long debates about what constitutes mental illness, but since the very people who are charged with making such distinctions routinely engage in rancorous, turf-protecting bureaucratic spats that seems unlikely to lead to anything more than the empaneling of yet another committee.

More expedient would be to simply agree with the proposition that committing murder is crazy, particularly given the conventional wisdom that a wide range of violent and criminal acts happen as a result of what is often termed temporary insanity. Meaning an otherwise normal, sane, law-abiding citizen — for reasons that are heavily influenced by circumstance and emotion — suddenly acts in a violent way against all apparent reason, and perhaps even against their own core beliefs. That such behavior makes no rational sense, yet seems to routinely transpire, is yet another indicator that when it comes to divining motive with precision, there will always be some uncertainty about why an act of violence occurred.

Given the established precedent, it does seem fair to conclude that committing a mass killing (including serial killings) is de facto proof of mental illness. Unfortunately, in terms of preventing such acts in the future this administrative act gets us nowhere because it only addresses the issue after the fact. Just as we cannot predict with certainty which sane individuals will go berserk, no matter how we define mental illness prior to the commission of an act of violence, at no point will we be able to show that people who meet that criteria will inevitably become murderers. We may have strong suspicions in some instances, we may see an eerie resemblance with other killers, some individuals may idolize mass murderers or openly profess a desire to kill a lot of people, but for every person who meets the criteria and goes on to commit murder we will always be able to find others who meet the criteria and do not. Worse, none of this focus on mental illness as a predictor of violence will help us prevent killings by people who show no signs of mental illness.  Read more ]

The Free Press and Motive

This post is part of a series exploring the idea that storytelling, gameplay or entertainment of any kind may precipitate acts of violence in the real world. First post here.

Still reeling from the realization that the motive for murder (or any other act) can never be reduced to a predictive certainty, you decide that getting the word out about your discovery is critical to finding solutions that will prevent violence. Because you are well connected you place calls to several prominent reporters and news outlets, all of which express universal disinterest in what you have to say. The reaction is so consistent that at first you think you must not have explained yourself clearly, but after several more not-for-attribution conversations and a good deal of cogitation it becomes abundantly clear that you’re not the problem.

Leveraging Responsibility
When it comes to exploiting the blood of innocent victims you have learned there are two ways to profit from the question of motive. You can plausibly ascribe motives to others because those motives can never be proven false, and, you can plausibly deny motives ascribed to you because those motives can never be proven true. While most parties opt for one strategy or the other given the rhetorical nature of charges and counter-charges, there is one stakeholder perfectly positioned to turn the usual back-and-forth about motive into a salable product itself. In fact, in the United States the right to do so is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Not only does the First Amendment preclude the government from telling you what you can and cannot say as a citizen, if you are a member of the press it gives you the right to tell the citizenry anything, even when the government would prefer you kept quiet. Whether a noble journalist concerned with truth or tabloid trash trying to make all the money you can by broadcasting insane ideas or outright lies, the First Amendment allows you to claim that you are being responsible and fair and objective and balanced without any fear of contradiction. Even if you are intentionally fomenting righteous indignation, fear and anger in your audience with the intent of converting those emotions into cash through advertising agencies, you have the right to do so. (Such arms-length transactions also allow you to claim that your mercenary editorial practices are entirely separate from your mercenary business practices, as if such a distinction was meaningful.)

Imagining yourself in the role of a money-hungry reporter eager to pervert the protections of the First Amendment, you realize your first objective would be identifying a real-world event that would draw interest — like, say, a mass killing. Assuming you were fortunate enough that such a crime took place, you could then attempt to fuel the story by providing what is euphemistically called coverage. From an entrepreneurial point of view this aggressive reporting would be aimed not at informing the public but at trying to give the story legs so it did not become just another moment in history. While ostensibly the result of consumer demand, such lucrative continuing interest would in fact be largely dependent on your reportorial ability to turn the tragedy into a marketing opportunity for you, your employer, and for the story itself.

If the story did develop legs you could then freely engage in what’s euphemistically called analysis, which is in fact little more than water-cooler-grade speculation if not outright editorial propaganda. If you were fortunate, cunning or both, you could use analysis to tie the real-world tragedy you’re milking for money to a long-running real-world debate that will never be resolved, thereby opening the door to profits in perpetuity. For example, if someone goes berserk and murders a dozen people, while you’re ceaselessly reporting what few facts you know during wall-to-wall, twenty-four-hour, live, multimedia coverage, you can also use the killings as a springboard to raise questions about, say, the easy availability of weapons, the inadequate state of mental health screening and treatment, or any other causal factor you believe to be good for your bottom line. Because you are under no legal obligation to be informative or accurate, you are constitutionally free to shape your analysis in whatever way proves most entertaining, engaging, infuriating or traumatizing to your audience, and most profitable to you.  Read more ]

Real-World Violence and Motive

This post is part of a series exploring the idea that storytelling, gameplay or entertainment of any kind may precipitate acts of violence in the real world. First post here.

The Killer’s Motive
Fortuitously, not only do we happen to know that the mass murderer we have in custody is guilty beyond any possible doubt, but because the killer is still alive, has waived counsel, has been deemed lucid by a battery of experts representing every conceivable psychological and psychiatric discipline, and is articulate and willing to answer any of our questions — which they will always respond to honestly due to an incurable compulsion for telling the truth — we will not, as we must when a murderer is dead, insane, or less than truthful, have to guess as to motive. Indeed, after a protracted interrogation we have extracted all the information we possibly can from the murderer, and at first blush it does seem as if we understand what the killer was thinking. As heartless and unconscionable as their behavior was, we can see a certain internal logic to their decision making. Even better, not only do we find no loose ends or inconsistencies in their statements, but when we look at similar crimes perpetrated by other murderers we see some factors that seem to correlate with such violent acts. Included are various forms of entertainment which demonstrate or dramatize violence eerily similar to the violence our killer unleashed, further tightening the apparent correlation between motive and murder.

In the end we are convinced that we understand why a dozen people were killed, and we are hopeful that this information might aid us in preventing such tragedies in the future. Unfortunately, the night before we are to turn in our findings we find ourselves in a dingy bar having drinks with a couple of strangers, and as the conversation wends its way toward dawn we discover to our horror that one of the people we are talking with shares not only the same perceptions of the world as our incarcerated killer, but they play the same violent computer games and watch the same violent movies and listen to the same enraged music. The overlap is so complete — so eerily exact — that in a moment of foggy panic we have the bar patron arrested on a trumped-up charge because we are convinced they must also have killed a dozen people.

As it turns out, however, the patron not only has no criminal history, they have an airtight alibi across the entirety of their life, leaving no possibility that they committed any crimes, let alone homicides. By every available metric they are indistinguishable from our killer, yet they have not killed anyone. While we can’t shake the feeling that the bar patron may at any minute go berserk, that unease pales in comparison to the devastating realization that some critical information is obviously missing from the motive both we and the killer ascribed to the killer’s actions. Where we thought we knew why a dozen people were dead, it turns out there is at least one other person in the world for whom all the relevant factors hold true who has not committed a crime, meaning we do not actually know what caused the killer to kill.

As an anecdotal test we run our analysis of the killer’s motive by a hundred people, explaining it step by step, and to a person they all agree we must be right. Yet we know we are not right because that same combination of environmental and personal factors applies to the bar patron as well. The motives we’re attributing to the killer sound plausible and reasonable and compelling to everyone, yet we know there is another person in the world — who has not killed anyone — for whom all of our purported causal attributions apply. Which leaves us with a choice to make, and because we have a conscience it’s a choice that makes us extremely uncomfortable.  Read more ]

Entertainment and Real-World Violence

This is the first in a series of posts exploring the idea that storytelling, gameplay or entertainment of any kind may precipitate acts of violence in the real world.

A few weeks back I ran across yet another article purporting to shed light on the decades-old question of whether video games beget real-world violence. Unfortunately, as is usually the case, the article was merely another grinding of the ever-glistening axe which both sides in that debate are all too eager to wield in service of their own disingenuous agendas.

Here is the opening paragraph from the article, which took journalism to task for suggesting that violent video games and real-world murder might somehow be related:

In the wake of the killing of the schoolteacher Ann Maguire last week, the question has again been raised of whether playing violent video games could lead someone to commit murder. It’s a common link that we see suggested in the media whenever tragedies of this sort occur, but the scientific evidence simply doesn’t support these claims.

As we’ll soon see, implying that a lack of scientific proof voids any possible causal complicity is a gambit exploited by every industry that has ever been accused of fomenting real-world violence. Such arguments are at best legal and at worst deceitful, and in no case scientific. The inability to prove cause and effect by scientific means does not mean there is no cause-and-effect relationship, merely that it can’t be proven — and the first people who would tell you that are actual scientists. As we’ll also see, the last people who will ever admit that’s the case are members of the press because they have a vested interest in leveling such charges whenever it profits them to do so.

In attempting to understand cause and effect we’re taught — rightly — to put our bedrock faith in facts. Because science is very good at unearthing facts it may seem that a lack of scientific evidence is somehow important to the question at hand, but it isn’t. We need know nothing about science in order to determine whether violent video games or video games in general or entertainment of any kind can cause an individual to act in a particular way at a particular time. Abandoning science may seem to leave us bewildered about how to prevent acts of violence in the future, but in fact the opposite is true. By stripping away improper appeals to science and eliminating false hopes arising from such appeals we end up in a very certain and logical place that allows us to keep as many people as possible from being murdered. Or would, if all parties were in agreement with that laudable objective, which unfortunately also turns out not to be the case.  Read more ]