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 ]

Storytelling, Motive and Tony Stewart

Over the past weekend, at a dirt track in upstate New York, three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart ran over and killed another driver, one lap after the two were involved in an on-track collision. The other driver, twenty-year-old Kevin Ward Jr., climbed out of his car and attempted to confront Stewart when Stewart came back around, at which point Stewart’s car struck and fatally injured Ward.

Because the internet is almost entirely devoted to righteous indignation and ridicule these days, and because media outlets are perpetually poised to profit from the deaths of other human beings, particularly if a celebrity is involved, there has been, as you might expect, a great deal of SEO-driven debate about this tragedy. Unfortunately, even the narrow segment of conversation which has not been fueled by cynicism and exploitation has broken down along predictable lines shaped by diverging presumptions and the reflexive human instinct to convert slim facts into stories that entertain, explain, sell and reassure.

You Don’t Get To Know
What everyone wants to know, and no one will ever know, is whether Tony Stewart hit Kevin Ward Jr. on purpose. That such a possibility exists is abhorrent, but also perfectly in keeping with Stewart’s established record as a hothead if not a bully. Long before last weekend’s race Stewart repeatedly made clear that he had no problem using his fists, helmet or race car as a weapon in on-track disputes — though it should be noted that he’s hardly alone in that approach to his sport. Still, if there was an established meme about Stewart going into that fateful race it was that he routinely converted emotional responses into physical confrontations.

It will never be known what Stewart was thinking before his car hit Ward. Even if Stewart comes forward and answers all such questions in an entirely convincing manner, the most anyone will be able to say is that he was entirely convincing. He might be telling the truth, but he might also be a sociopath with no compunction about lying, or so mortified by what happened that he has repressed the truth of his actions. In any case, because Stewart is alive and Ward is dead the media spotlight will inevitably feature Stewart’s version of events, backed by the full faith and credit of interested corporate entities like NASCAR and ESPN, which have the muscle to force almost any narrative into the mainstream.

If you only manage to keep one thought in your mind about this or any other tragedy that involves questions of motive, try to remember that you will never, ever know what really transpired. Because the moment you believe you do know is the moment when you stop living in the real world and start telling stories.

Read more ]

Amazon Outrage Redux Ad Nauseum

Apparently more people are noticing that Amazon doesn’t care about authors or readers or anything other than making as much money as possible:

After months with Jeff Bezos’ fingers planted in their eyeballs, hundreds of pissed off writers are buying a full-page middle finger to Amazon. Their message is clear: please stop screwing us in order to promote world retail domination.

Sensing vulnerability, Google is attempting to ingratiate itself with authors and readers by teaming up with Barnes and Noble to provide a trivial service in a few public-relations-rich locations:

Starting on Thursday, book buyers in Manhattan, West Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area will be able to get same-day deliveries from local Barnes & Noble stores through Google Shopping Express, Google’s fledgling online shopping and delivery service.

The big picture takeaway is of course that none of these companies care about you except to the extent that you can be co-opted or exploited in their wars with each other. Moral of the story: stop caring about technology, technology companies, or anything other than your work and your readers. And maybe your local independent bookstore if you’re lucky enough to have one. That’s where the love is.

Update: In counterattacking on the authorial front, Amazon manages to shoot itself in the foot, fall down a flight of stairs, bounce out the door, roll into the street in front of a steamroller, then to stagger to its feet only to be crushed by a highly rated piano that unfortunately did not quality for free shipping:

The freshest part of Amazon’s call to arms was the history lesson. It recounted how the book industry hated mass-market paperbacks when they were introduced in the 1930s, and said they would ruin the business when they really rejuvenated it. Unfortunately, to clinch its argument, it cited the wrong authority:

“The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if ‘publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.’ Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.”

This perceived slur on the memory of one of the 20th century’s most revered truth-tellers might prove to be one of Amazon’s biggest public relations blunders since it deleted copies of “1984” from readers’ Kindles in 2009.

Amazon has apparently also decided to pick a fight with Disney, thereby opening up a war on two fronts in flagrant disregard for historical precedent.

— Mark Barrett

Making the Move to Mobile Web Design

After taking eight of the previous twelve months off from the haphazard blogging I do here on Ditchwalk, I knew when I picked up the mouse again that I needed to redesign the site to reflect a broader but also more personal focus. Less platform and profession, more craft and art. Less business and commerce, more being and seeing.

What I did not fully comprehend until I took up that task in February was that a sea change had taken place in computing over the previous two years, and that I would need to factor that change into the redesign of Ditchwalk. (I had noticed aspects of the change, but because I can be fairly slow on the uptake I didn’t perceive those dissonant experiences as part of a fundamental metamorphosis in computing.)

In retrospect, the loudest and most prominent signal came from Microsoft with it’s release of Windows 8. Unlike previous versions, Windows 8 came with a default desktop environment that emulated the screen of a mobile device, including touch-sensitive tabs perfect for use on tablet displays — then an exploding technology. As someone who has never owned a smartphone or tablet I reacted with a practiced and oblivious roll of the eyes because Microsoft is always trying to drive computing in directions that favor its various monopolies, often with disastrous results. What I did not realize was that the decision to try to kill off the desktop PC was not a sign of active corporate idiocy, it was a sign of reactive corporate idiocy.

During the two years following the release of Windows 8 Microsoft first denied it had made a mistake, then belatedly began trying to undo the damage it had done to its own brand by once again attempting to force everyone that used its products to adopt another self-serving interface metaphor. Watching this ritual inanity play out further convinced me that Microsoft’s initial decision was just another blind lurch by a company that cannot perceive its own meaning in the marketplace, but that was a mistake on my part.  Read more ]


Note Cards

Over the past few years, while initiating two personal non-fiction projects each running hundreds of pages in length, I found myself struggling to structure coherent wholes from the dizzying sums of the respective parts. I knew generally what I wanted to say in each case, and I had no shortage of content to work with, but in contemplating the structural expression of my ideas I became overwhelmed both by the complexity of the issues and the amount of information on hand.

Having learned to write in the pre-computer age, when every word had to be hand-chiseled into a block of marble, and having been liberated by the amazing technological advances in word processing that continue to this day, and generally being the kind of person who believes that software is a better medium for grappling with ideas than stone, I invariably tried to use computer programs to wrap my mind around each project. Unfortunately, each tool I tested proved more trouble than it was worth because visibility of the whole became obscured by the inherent limitations of the computer screen — by which I mean an old-fashioned desk-top monitor.

It’s a given today that the only thing worth holding in your hand is the latest-and-greatest smartphone, but I’m going to suggest you may want to expand your arsenal of helpful physical objects when you’re writing something that can’t be adequately communicated with your thumbs. And yes, as you undoubtedly surmised from the title of this post, I’m talking about note cards. What you may not yet realize, however, is that I really am talking about real paper note cards just like your grandparents used when they were structuring their long-form projects.Read more ]


It’s Not About the Money

Last week author Tony Horowitz wrote an op-ed in the New York Times detailing his tragicomic experience writing an e-book:

Last fall a new online publication called The Global Mail asked me to write about the Keystone XL pipeline, which may carry oil to the United States from the tar sands of Canada. The Global Mail promoted itself as a purveyor of independent long-form journalism, lavishly funded by a philanthropic entrepreneur in Australia. I was offered an initial fee of $15,000, plus $5,000 for expenses, to write at whatever length I felt the subject merited.

At the time I was researching a traditional print book, my seventh. But it was getting harder for me to feel optimistic about dead-tree publishing. Here was a chance to plant my flag in the online future and reach a younger and digitally savvy audience. The Global Mail would also be bankrolling the sort of long investigative journey I’d often taken as a reporter, before budgets and print space shrank.

Alas, things did not go well. If you’re eying the e-book boom Horowitz’s piece is a must-read because it comes from someone in the trenches, not someone selling you a shovel that you will eventually only use to dig your own grave. Based on the totality of his experience I don’t begrudge Horowitz his eventual retreat, but if you’re new to the writing game I think it’s important to understand what has and has not changed during the past few years of publishing upheaval.

Making money as a writer — to say nothing of making writing a career, even for a few years — has always been brutally hard. If you’re passionate and lucky and plucky and willing to do whatever it takes, and you meet the right people at the right time, and you have the chops, and you’re less trouble than you’re worth, you can, maybe, get a gig. If you do a decent job and meet your deadline you might get another gig, or even an actual job with regular hours and benefits and somebody else paying two thirds of your social security taxes. But it’s hard. Always.

While the e-book craze is in large part being driven by people who hope to profit from doing so, and it’s always nice to make a buck, the real value of e-books, and by extension, self-publishing, is the fact that you no longer have to ask someone for permission to write what you want to write. You may not make any money following your bliss, but when was that ever guaranteed? The best you could usually hope for was to write for hire, to get someone to pay you for services rendered, then use that income to cover the cost of personal projects. Even if you were a literary lion your high-dollar advance came with expectations and limits.

If you want to make money as a writer you’re looking at a hard life, but it was always thus. What’s changed — what the e-book revolution and self-publishing are really about — is that everyone now has access. So while you’re right to think about how much money you can squeeze out of the marketplace with your talent and guile, take a moment to ballpark the opportunity cost of the self-publishing and internet distribution options currently available. What would it take to replicate those opportunities if you had to pay for them yourself? A billion dollars? Ten billion? A trillion?

The e-book market will sort itself out in time, at which point it will become just another market you can sell your services to if you aspire to be a working writer. What you no longer have to do is wait for someone to say yes if you’re willing to bet on yourself, and I see that change as priceless.

— Mark Barrett