Terry Gilliam: Hollywood is just “gray, frightened people” holding on for dear life

The godfather of dystopian cinema on the death of Hollywood, why he gave up U.S. citizenship and his new movie

 

Terry Gilliam: Hollywood is just “gray, frightened people” holding on for dear life
Terry Gilliam, on the set of “The Zero Theorem” (Credit: Amplify Releasing)

If you want to illustrate the old adage about a prophet who is without honor in his own country, look to Terry Gilliam. Mind you, I guess America isn’t even Gilliam’s country anymore, and neither is Hollywood. The onetime Monty Python member and director of “Time Bandits,” “Brazil” and “12 Monkeys,” although he was born in Minneapolis and spent his teen years in Los Angeles, has lived as an expatriate for many years and renounced his United States citizenship in 2006. (That was partly in protest of George W. Bush and partly, Gilliam has said, to shield his wife and children from tax liability.)

Gilliam didn’t need to repudiate his relationship with the mainstream film industry, which had pretty much turned its back on him after the commercial failure of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” in 1998 – a movie that looks, in retrospect, like the ultimate distillation of his grotesque and visionary directorial style. Gilliam pioneered the blend of fantasy and dystopian science fiction in the days before CGI, when those things seemed like geeky and bizarre niche interests. Go back and look at the remarkable special effects in another underappreciated box-office flop, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” made in 1988. He was just a few years too early, but his influence is everywhere in contemporary cinema and culture, even as his later career has been a remarkable parade of near-misses and not-quites. Not for nothing is the aging, threadbare rebel leader played by John Hurt in Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” named Gilliam!



Gilliam was supposedly J.K. Rowling’s first choice for “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” and Alan Moore’s first choice for “Watchmen,” and can you even imagine how weird and great those movies would have been? His list of never-launched projects includes an adaptation of “A Tale of Two Cities” with Mel Gibson and an adaptation of Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” He still hopes to make “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” with Johnny Depp, a production that legendarily imploded 15 years ago. His new movie, “The Zero Theorem,” starring Christoph Waltz as an isolated computer programmer searching for the meaning of life in an overloaded info-society not far removed from our own, has been in the works for at least six years. It was originally cast with Ewan McGregor in the lead, and then Billy Bob Thornton (alongside Jessica Biel and Al Pacino), in a version that was all set to go in 2009, before Gilliam turned his attention to finding a way to finish yet another haunted film, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” after the death of its star, Heath Ledger.

Gilliam has described “The Zero Theorem” as the completion of an “Orwellian triptych” that began with his dystopian masterpiece “Brazil” in 1985 and continued with “12 Monkeys” a decade later. I won’t argue that this film lives up to the earlier two, but taken on its own terms it’s a work of wicked wit and imagination, shot by cinematographer Nicola Pecorini in classic Gilliam style: wide lenses, deep focus, and the frame overloaded with grotesque detail. Waltz gives one of his best performances as a barely functional nerd-genius called Qohen, who refers to himself in the first-person plural and works on disturbing data-crunching tasks for an enormous company that seems to have devoured the state. There are all sorts of delicious supporting turns, including David Thewlis as the cheerful boss determined to draw Qohen out of his shell, Tilda Swinton as an online therapy-bot (who performs a disastrously awful rap song) and Matt Damon as the back-room kingpin known only as Management.

As veteran Gillian-watchers will already suspect, “The Zero Theorem” is more tragedy than farce, despite all its levels of technological and social satire. It’s the story of a man who is highly skilled in some ways but finds himself out of step with the world and with his time, desperate to connect with others but finally unable to do so. Gilliam didn’t write this script (which is by Pat Rushin, a creative writing instructor), but immediately agrees that he responded to it on a personal level. He wasn’t sure whether he’d be able to visit New York for the “Zero Theorem” – as an ex-citizen, he is limited to 29 days a year in the U.S., and needs to parcel them out carefully – so he called me from his home office in London.

This must be an exhausting ritual, being grilled by Americans on the phone – and about the past, in many cases.

It’s fine. After becoming depressed like Qohen for being alone as much as I am, I’m happy to talk to people.

It’s funny that you say that. Maybe this is dime store psychology, but I was irresistibly drawn to that interpretation. The curmudgeonly guy who hates everybody, who’s locked in his house trying to solve a problem that cannot be solved. How much is that you?

That’s 100 percent me [laughs]. No, I identify with him so much. I thought Christoph made him an interesting character despite his behavior. I think I’m getting more and more curmudgeonly as the years pass, because you get angry. You look at healthy young people and realize your body doesn’t do that any more, so you get even more angry.

Well, and then there’s your relationship with the film industry, which was maybe never so terribly warm and fuzzy. Is that that you have changed or that the nature of the mainstream film industry has changed? Or have the two of you just sort of drifted further apart?

I think we’ve both changed and probably drifted apart for that reason, even more. In Hollywood, at least when I was making films there, there were people in the studios that actually had personalities. You could distinguish one from the other. And now, I don’t see that at all. It’s just gray, frightened people holding on without any sense of “let’s try something here, let’s do something different.” But to be fair, I haven’t been talking to anybody from the studios in the last few years. But the films that Hollywood is making now, it’s clear what’s going on. The big tent-pole pictures are just like the last tent-pole pictures. Hopefully one of them will work and keep the studio going. It’s become … it’s a reflection of the real world, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the middle class get squeezed out completely. So the kind of films I make need more money than the very simple films. Hollywood doesn’t deal with those budgets anymore; they don’t exist.

You can’t make the film in your house for $50,000. But they’re also not going to give you $100 million. You’re in a mid-budget area they don’t like, right?

Yeah. It’s terrible. I’m not alone in the mid-budget area that’s being pushed out of work. It’s a great sadness because there are many small films that can be wonderful, or you get huge $100 million-plus budgets and they’re all the same film, basically, or very similar. It’s just not as interesting as it used to be. The choice out there is less interesting. The real problem now is that when you make a small film, to get the money to promote it is almost impossible. You can’t complete with a $70-80 million budget the studios have. So it becomes less and less interesting. That’s why, in a sense, the most interesting work at the moment, as any creative person, knows is coming out of television in America now, not coming out of the studios.

The studios have two niches, and the problem is that you don’t fit in either one of them. You’re not going to do a “Transformers” movie for $250 million. And they think you’re not the right person to do the movie that maybe costs $40 million and is aimed at the Oscars, or is a prestige literary adaptation or something. They don’t trust you with those, right?

I wouldn’t trust me with them either. [Laughs.] I just want to do what I do. And I don’t even get scripts from Hollywood. I don’t even ask for scripts anymore because I kind of know what they’re going to be. They don’t interest me, so I’ve chosen to wander in the wilderness for another 40 years. We’ll see how it goes.

Going back to the character that Christoph plays in this film, there’s so much going on on the surface, but what really got to me was the tremendous sadness. This person who has a creative drive, a creative urge, and is in a situation where there’s no way for him to fulfill that. That struck me as a situation of extreme pathos.

Well that’s how I see the film. It’s very funny but it’s basically tragedy. It’s very sad. It does move me. You can sort of do the parallels between me and that guy, but at heart that’s not really what it is. Not getting to do what you want to do is one thing, but his problem is that he lets life and relationships fall apart because he can’t grasp them. He’s so damaged — I think the scene when Bainsley [a femme fatale played by French actress Mélanie Thierry] leaves and offers for him to come along, he can’t do it. For me that’s the core scene of the film. What happened to this guy? So in the end, I had to leave him with some kind of sense of dignity and a kind of peace. It may only exist in a virtual world and at least he can let the sun set. He can control that much. I mean, when I make a film, there’s always a big autobiographical element in it, that’s the only way I know how to make films. I have to identify with the character in one way or another. And this one, in retrospect, ended up being quite interesting because when I started it I didn’t think it was going to be that film exactly, but that’s what it became.

Your portrayal of the world is so interesting, people will inevitably look back to your earlier films and other people’s. I felt like you were referencing “Blade Runner,” which came out just before “Brazil,” more directly than you ever have before. But the important thing to me was that this portrait of the informational clutter of the world is almost not a satire or an exaggeration. It’s maybe a tiny bit exaggerated, but it’s almost a portrait of the real world.

Yes. Thank you for that. People talk about it in some sort of future, dystopic view. No! It’s exactly what’s going on right now as far as I’m concerned. [Laughs.] When I walk out onto the streets of London, I’m bombarded exactly like Qohen is at the beginning of the film. It’s endless, it seems to me. And that’s why I sort of built that world around him. Everything in the world out there is colorful and people seem to be having a good time and shopping is bubbling away and things are being offered to you left, right and center. The workplace is a colorful place with people zipping around having a great time. There’s only one bit of darkness and grayness in the thing and that’s Qohen. And that’s what intrigued me about him. He’s very much like a monk. He’s in a burned-out church and it’s a church that has no meaning anymore. That particular construct of life has passed him by. And yet, that’s why I love when another character tells him, “Nonetheless, you’re a man of faith. And that is the very thing that has made you not live your life.”

I have to recommend to you a documentary called “Web Junkie” that you probably haven’t heard about, which is about young people in China being sent to re-education camps to cure them of their supposed Internet addiction. This is a movie that you could have invented, that happens to be a true story. It’s like a corollary to or the dark side of this film. You use technology in an interesting way in this film: You have tons of digital effects in here but the movie is also about the social effects of technology. What is your personal attitude about the way that it’s changed our lives?

TG: It terrifies me because I’m a junkie; I’m an addict. I’m sitting here right now in front of a high-definition computer screen. It’s consumed far, far too much of my life. It’s very seductive and that’s what makes me crazy. The days go by and I’m finding myself still sitting in front of that screen when I should be out doing something physical but it’s easier to sit there and poke around on the Web. That’s one side of it. As far as tweeting and all of that, I don’t. And I find it appalling that people cannot just get on and experience the moment. They seem to have to comment on the moment all the time. Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame is 15 megabytes of fame. Everybody, it’s all about them. The world becomes background to them as opposed to them relating to the world.

We did a thing in the Python reunion show at the end, a meet-and-greet where people paid extra money to meet and greet us. And there was a barrier that kept us from touching. And people at the beginning said “Everybody does a selfie now.” So we had them all turn their backs to us and hold the phone up and we were in the background smiling while they were in the foreground of the picture. It’s just — this is crazy. You go to a rock concert and before the first song is finished, the tweets are coming through. It makes me crazy because people are not relating to the real world anymore. That’s very worrisome. Hunter Thompson predicted America would soon be a nation of panicky sheep, and I think it’s adding to the problem.

You made “Time Bandits,” “Brazil” and “Baron Munchausen” in the ‘80s, long before the rise of CGI, and now we find ourselves in an era where every Hollywood movie is either a dystopian science fiction vision or a fantasy film. Do you feel like you explored the territory first and nobody remembers that?

Well, I don’t know. I think, yeah. I keep thinking I would like to have a chance at those kinds of things, because that’s what I’ve always wanted to make and that’s what I did back then. I just don’t know what they are anymore. They’re films — fantasy without substance and sci-fi dystopia without intelligence. I don’t know really what to comment except that they all seem to be clones of each other. And people are so happy to go back and see the same thing again and again and again. And that, to me, makes me sad about the state of the world. We want reassurance now rather than being challenged, and that’s sad.

This is what I always say when people ask me about the difference between watching 300 films a year and watching just a few, like ordinary moviegoers. Ordinary people seem largely OK, or at least historically OK, with seeing the same films over and over again, for whatever reason. Maybe with technical innovations or improvements in execution …

Technically they’re brilliantly done. They’re beautiful things but there’s nothing in them. There’s nothing new. Nothing to make you think or look at the world in a different way. It’s just the same thing going on and on and on. It really is bread and circuses these days. It may be a sign of people’s impotence, that they can’t really change anything so let’s keep going back and have that McDonald’s burger because we know exactly what we’re about to get and let’s watch another Marvel Comics film because we know exactly what we’re going to get.

You have, however, adjusted to the era of doing the effects digitally. Obviously, when you did “Munchausen” or “Time Bandits,” that was all either physical effects or camerawork.

It hasn’t changed anything really, for me. Because I’m sort of forced into the world of “You have to do it the cheapest way.” And fortunately or unfortunately, CGI is cheaper than doing old-fashioned effects. So I end up doing it that way. I’ve always used digital effects. In “12 Monkeys” there’s a lot of stuff in there. I just don’t want — I want it to be a minor part of the filmmaking process, to deal with the things I can’t quite do. What’s happening now is because you can do it with CGI, anything you want, well, that doesn’t mean you should do anything you want. I like the restrictions. Maybe it’s a way of controlling myself, having to work with a small budget. This film is about $8.5 million, but it looks a lot more expensive than that. What you do is go to Bucharest, where people get paid a fraction of what they get paid in London. You call some friends up and they work for scale rather than what they normally get paid when they work for Hollywood. So I’m happy when Hollywood pays some of my friends a lot of money so they can come work for me for next to nothing.

Actors still want to work with you, right? That’s the good part.

Yeah, that’s nice. I think because so many of them are looking for interesting parts and they’re born with the stuff — they’ll do it because it pays good money, it pays the mortgage and buys time to do more interesting things. I think that’s kind of it. I suppose what actors like about me is they know I’ll give them space to show off and have some fun and they can do things they wouldn’t normally do. I love Matt [Damon] in the film. I think he’s fantastic as that character. I’ve never seen him do that before, and that’s great. I actually said, “Matt, I’ve got a small part. A few days work.” he said “Don’t bother, I’m in.” It’s nice to have friends like that, who will do it for the joy of doing it. And we had a great time. Working with Christoph was an utter joy because he’s thinking all the time; he’s questioning. He’s utterly brilliant. Personally I think it’s the best thing he’s ever done. It might not be the most popular thing he’s ever done, but he’s never off-screen and he’s just stunning.

I don’t think anyone has ever asked Tilda Swinton to rap in a movie before. It’s possible that nobody will again.

Yes. I think she’s sealed her fate. Her MTV career is over. Here’s a wonderful thing though: I had designed this hairstyle for her and when we first met to talk about what she was wearing and the wig, she had decided that as a psychiatrist she should identify more with her patient, so she should be bald. That wasn’t in the script. That was her idea.

I need to ask whether you’ve seen “Snowpiercer,” because if there was ever a film that you’re your influence, that one is it.

I desperately want to see “Snowpiercer”! But it hasn’t arrived in this country yet. Especially since John Hurt plays a character called Gilliam. I have seen the trailer and it looks fantastic. It looks really good and really beautiful.

Well, and I think Bong Joon-ho really followed your example, in some ways. Instead of coming to Hollywood and making the film in a way that required surrendering control, he made it in Europe with European money. He got a pretty large budget, I think it was $40 million, but it was assembled from all over the place — a bunch from different European financiers and a little bit from Harvey Weinstein. And then he didn’t have to make a movie the studios were going to chop up.

And yet Harvey still tried to chop it up. At least it got made. That’s the important thing.

I’m hearing rumors that you may finally make the Don Quixote film! What’s the level of truth or fiction there?

Yep. Well, we’ve postponed it. I was planning to shoot it in October this year, but because of the Python reunion show, I postponed it. The two lead actors, their agents and the producer are in discussion as we speak. And yeah, the plan is to be shooting it next springtime. We have locations in the Canary Islands already. I’m assuming we’re going to make it. I’m just suspending all my disbelief. [Laughs.]

Your entire career has involved a certain amount of doing that, right? It’s been required.

I just don’t want to accept the world as it is out there. We’ll see how that goes this time. [Laughs.] That movie has taken 15 years. It’s reached the point where I withhold a lot of my enthusiasm at the moment. I’m waiting to make sure everything is nailed down and then I’ll let go and make this thing happen. I’ve been at it so long it’s almost like it’s fake. It’s like trying to remove a tumor so I can get on with my life.

One more question: I know you gave up your American citizenship about eight years ago. I’m sure you have followed the news about Edward Snowden and the NSA stuff. Did that sum up some of the reasons why you didn’t want to be an American anymore? And secondly, didn’t the whole Snowden episode feel like something that would happen in one of your films?

Edward Snowden is a great hero, I think. It’s quite extraordinary what he’s done and yeah, all I know is I’m luckier than him. I live in England, not Russia. I was in Moscow a month and a half ago and as interesting as it is, I’m happier here. And yes, it’s part of the reason — with George W. Bush and that whole gang that has completely restructured what America is — and a Supreme Court that is so unbelievably right wing. It’s a country that is basically ruled by corporations at the expense of the citizens. I believe.

“The Zero Theorem” opens this week in many cities, and is also available on-demand from cable, satellite and online providers.

http://www.salon.com/2014/09/19/terry_gilliam_hollywood_is_just_%E2%80%9Cgray_frightened_people%E2%80%9D_holding_on_for_dear_life/?source=newsletter

A proposal on the Scottish referendum: “Yes, but…”

by Gordon Asher on September 18, 2014

Post image for A proposal on the Scottish referendum: “Yes, but…”“A ‘Yes, but’ campaign supports a ‘yes’ vote as our least worst option, and supports the autonomy of social movements regardless of which side wins.”

By Gordon Asher and Leigh French

With Scotland’s referendum on “independence” and the likelihood of a very close result now sparking further interest and engagement, we catch breath to consider likely and possible future paths for movements struggling for eco-social justice. To be clear, we do so from a position of voting ‘Yes, BUT’, with no illusions, which is Richard Gunn’s useful way of framing and orienting a response to the highly polarized referendum question:

“A YES, BUT campaign would support a ‘yes’ vote as our least worst option [...] And — most important — it would support the autonomy of social movements regardless of which side in the referendum won. [...] Both an unadorned YES campaign and an unadorned NO campaign endorse neoliberal positions. By contrast, a YES, BUT campaign reformulates issues in an interactive way.”

It is important to recognize that there are a number of coherent and principled positions to take to voting in the referendum that reflect desires for eco-social justice — including choosing not to engage with the referendum vote at all. There are not simply two homogeneous opposing national positions, spoken for by party political leaders, as is represented by parliamentarianism and the media. Rather, a range of orientations around the national question can and are being expressed.

We sceptically believe that a Yes vote provides a greater likelihood for conditions favorable to ongoing struggles for eco-social justice. From a position of critique — treating Yes as our least worst option — we are under no illusion that ‘yes’ will, per se, enable struggles that speak to both resistance and necessary alternatives to our current socio-economic conditions. A Yes vote is not a solution to our contemporary crises — nor is it a new start.

Rather, it concerns the contexts of continuing present struggles. Something which requires the state-formation processes that are already underway (such as the SNP government’s proposed interim constitution) to be grasped more critically, so as to inform ongoing political action.

So voting ‘yes’, but with an awareness of the need for continuing — deepening and expanding, building and evolving — struggles for eco-social justice. And doing so through participation in and engagement with social movements, which will be necessary whatever the referendum result. In taking a critical stance in such polarised conditions of the referendum, we have repeatedly encountered demands to situate what we are for and what we are against in such binary terms that affirm one side or the other.

So as to be clear, we are against:

  • The rapacious neoliberal globalization of a corporate-state nexus — marked by growing social, political and economic polarization and integrated crises. How situations of civil disruption, social suffering and environmental crises are key strategic moments for the reproduction of capital (Naomi Klein’s ‘disaster capitalism’).
  • The idea of the nation-state as a naturally pre-given form — it is a historically contingent social construct and thus there are alternatives to it.
  • How the nation-state comes to sit above the local in importance — the way banal rituals and routine bureaucratic procedures help to assert the pre-eminence of state authority.
  • The combination of the state as the foremost institution involved in ‘binding space’ into productive territories, and the ideology of neoliberalism which exerts a pedagogical force that acts to shape social space — becoming the automatic ‘common sense’ by which the state, the media, civil society, and ordinary people relate.
  • The contradictory division between ‘good’ (civic) and ‘bad’ (ethno-cultural) nationalism — with the former linked to motifs of progress as an obligatory common destiny.
  • The use of shaming (of stigma) to modify conduct — as has been taken up in expressions and appeals of both campaigns.
  • The growth agenda of competitive nationalism — which, through a rhetoric of national competitive necessity, marshals consensus around the inevitability of market-competition, with practical consequences for international solidarity.

And, what we are for:

  • A path not a model — rather, an orientation or direction of travel beyond an improved future.
  • Asserting that our social relations should and can be different — and that we (as agents of change) can transform them in moving towards greater levels of self-determination, self-management, participatory democracy, and individual and collective autonomy.
  • Eco-social justice — an equal and just world for all with regard to all species and across the integrated spheres of society.
  • A prefigurative orientation towards critical dialogue and engagement that makes existing exclusions visible — because how we locate politics is central to the kind of society we would like to become.
  • A recognition of radical, autonomous social movements as central to living (an ongoing process of being and becoming) — the necessary prefigurative struggles of resistance, creation and evolution of alternatives.
  • Dissensus as central to democratic agonistic interaction (the positive role of political conflict) as it is key to opening up alternatives in political decision-making. Dissensus doesn’t just mean a conflict of interest, opinions, or values but, more widely, a dispute over the space of and for politics itself.
  • Agonistic pluralism — as a way to think about democracy that’s centred on that contestation, as a counter to the de-politicizing technocratic discourse of consensus, which displaces politics by determining the correct place and object of political action. As Chantal Mouffe explains: “while we desire an end to conflict, if we want people to be free we must always allow for the possibility that conflict may appear and to provide an arena where differences can be confronted. The democratic process should supply that arena.”

A ‘Yes Scotland’ and ‘Independence’

Attention to what vocabulary represents or obscures is important — not that we’re polishing any halos — particularly when it can be and is both contested and prejudicially manipulated. As such, should we be talking about a Yes vote leading to a ‘Yes Scotland’ rather than to ‘independence’? Because actual independence is not what is on offer, if indeed that is at all possible for any territory within the post-sovereign global system of nation states.

Rather, ‘independence’ is a matter of degrees and of variable power relations, both internally and externally. Certainly the nation-state that the SNP now envisages, with intentions to keep the monarchy (and hence Crown Powers), and to maintain a currency union (and thus austerity pact with the Bank of England) is, in these regards, no less independent of the rest of the UK than at present.

Neither is it independent of the tension between harmonization/acquiescence and conflict that exists between state politics and global circuits of capital and power — the network of inter-, trans- and supra-national bodies (such as NATO, the EU, the G7, the IMF and the World Bank) that serve to underpin, extend and evolve the processes of neoliberalism, and through membership of which nations have ceded sovereignty, or indeed had it taken from them.

A pressing example is the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), intended to further lock-in, deepen and expand the neoliberal organization of society, and through doing so further weaken undesirable aspects of state sovereignty. A treaty which Scotland will likely be bound by; either through remaining in a UK that has ratified it, or through a post-yes-referendum EU membership.

For a level of independence in which, individually and collectively, we have a say in decisions to the extent that they effect us — that is, participatory democracy — it is incumbent upon us to resist such plans, which includes those of considerable sections of the mainstream Yes campaign. That is, to evolve, build and connect social movements that not only resist and create alternative visions and strategies to the kinds of arrangements and pressures just outlined, but that over time move beyond not just capitalism but the nation-state system itself.

The SNP and the Constitutional Position

It is worth closely examining the recent history of the SNP government, as well as their proposals for a technocratic future Scotland – especially their White Paperxvi and constitutional plans.xvii We hold concerns about both the inter-related process and content. Why is there need for a bill in these terms, rather than the procedural minimum necessary – a “minimal constitutional model which would still leave policy choices to the new parliament”?xviii

The SNP propose a nation-state determined by:

  • Monarchic oversight and thus a continued acceptance of anti-democratic Crown Powers;
  • A US-dominated NATO with its neo-colonial role and developing strategy of first use of nuclear weapons;
  • The ceding of sovereignty to an EU neoliberal framework;
  • The economic primacy of the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate) sector, and hence continued domination by corporations — for example, through low corporate taxes and the exploitation of debt and rent at all scales, from individual to state;
  • A commitment to endless economic growth with fossil fuels a significant economic driver.

Such a “treaty-worthy/ready” state (in Chomsky’s terms) will be subjected to and driven by the same neoliberal market processes as Westminster.The realities of the SNP proposals and present policies is that they would function to close down genuinely radical alternative visions and strategies.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, large numbers of people in Scotland have already expressed a sense of disenfranchisement and powerlessness and seek a greater say in how their lives are shaped. That aspiration cannot be satisfied by what is on offer. We will still have to work, post-referendum, to create and develop actual democratic structures and relations.

Issues Arising

Following on from these propositions are issues that we feel are either absented, paid insufficient attention, or grossly misrepresented across the referendum campaigns. They concern imagined visions of society and how we might wish to get to the many possible futures from here — something contingent upon the contemporary contexts of the integrated crises which we face.

Ecological Issues and Imperatives:

The roles of the state in creating and deepening the ecological and environmental crises of global warming, climate chaos, resource depletion and environmental degradation have been the significant elephant in the room with regard to referendum debates and positions, specifically for claims centred on a need for exploitation of oil and gas. Yet, the science tells us that to keep global warming to within a (still dangerous) rise of two degrees Celsius, it is imperative that we leave most petro-carbons in the ground, unexploited.

Further, across the campaigns, environmental policies comfortably sit within the capitalist paradigm, and thus are still based on a model of seeking infinite growth on a finite planet. A system that will continue to create climate chaos and further environmental degradation, even if we do leave carbon in the ground! Which is not to say that, if possible (a very serious question and doubt), these would not be small but significant improvements. But that we urgently need to replace these dictates and imperatives of capital — indeed the entire capitalist system.

Environmentally, we must develop resilience to eco-system changes otherwise locked-in, while rapidly moving from a carbon-based system of immense energy consumption to one that is more localized and consumes considerably less, promoting de-carbonization. Basing that on renewables — creating a low or zero carbon infrastructure — that permits the use of what carbon we do extract for the many petrochemical functions that are vital to modern society. It is worth noting that Scotland is particularly well placed to do so, with huge potential resources in terms of renewable energy.

Representative and Participatory Democracy:

Most of the debate to date has taken place within the paradigm of ‘representative democracy’ — the electoral system symbiotic with, and that is used to justify, capitalism in much of ‘the global north’. It is essential to puncture the myth that such a system is either representative of (or accountable to) those for whom it is claimed to be. Nor is it democratic. In that it does not lead to people actually being the decision makers — to people having, to the greatest degree possible, the ultimate power over decisions, regarding all aspects of society to the extent that they are likely to be affected by them.

It is this participatory democracy that must be prefigured in our movements, working towards an inclusive conflictual politics rather than a consensus that shrinks political space. The relations, processes and practices of our movements should demonstrate a possible world by reflecting the very values and objectives that we espouse.

Nuclear and Militarism — and Demilitarisation

There appears to be agreement across the Yes campaigns with the SNP policy of removal of Trident from Scotland. Yet, while welcome, as it is presently formulated this is limited, and we have to ask if it amounts to much more than a policy of ‘not in our backyard’? Central to the SNP’s stance is the hypocrisy of seeking to remain a member of NATO — a US-dominated, expansionist, and interventionist body and projectxl responsible for:

  • A military alliance with an evolving strategy of first use of nuclear weapons and a continuing history of illegitimate, immoral, and by their own logic, illegal wars and occupations;
  • Waging ‘war’ by other means — the economic pressuring of countries through diplomatic and development routes; from debt and spending, trade liberalization and privatization, to sanctions.

We should, instead, withdraw from NATO, alongside a unilateral relinquishment of nuclear weapons and, indeed, all other weapons and means of mass destruction. Further, we should demilitarize Scotland — which goes beyond divestment of nuclear weapons. A demilitarization through which we end both Scotland’s role as a constituent part of US global bases and force projection, and its part in the manufacturing and distribution chain of militarism globally.

The vast sums saved could instead underpin not just the protection but the expansion and improvement of public services, the vital rapid transition to renewable energy, and thus crucial opportunities for the creation of socially useful employment that such projects would create.

Questions

We will conclude by raising some questions. The first is relevant in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote: how do we not get the neoliberal Scotland envisaged in the SNP’s White Paper? And, more long term, how do we overcome a capitalist Scotland at the hands of any of the political parties?

Secondly, in the event of a ‘No’ vote: how do we resist, through building alternatives to, that which appears to inevitably be in store for us at the hands of the dominant powers in the UK? (Deepening and intensified so-called ‘austerity’, with extra foreclosure to stem any future challenges to UK state legitimacy). Further, what are the points of class (and other) oppressions and antagonisms that far too many national discussions have served, in large part, to overwrite or obscure?

Other questions needing to be asked whatever the result of the vote include: how do we contest the socio-economic consensus of There Is No Alternative (TINA)? That is, claims that there are no alternatives to an incontestable neoliberal vision — the entrenched dogma of competitive nationalism(s); where institutions are subject to reproduction of both banal and overt state ideology, where culture and education are pressed to contribute to a cohering of nationhood and positioned as a competitive factor, and where individuals are treated as responsible for not maximising their economising potential so relieving their burden on the state vision.

How do we address the related crisis of democracy — the political consensus of TINA; here, wedded to claims of a ‘representative democracy’ within a parliamentary system? Such that we genuinely democratize participation and engagement in political processes and decision making? How do we come to understand, and resist, the dominance of both the mainstream media and education systems as part of the state apparatus; and their roles in the manufacture, maintenance and evolution of consent? And in doing so, nourish, build, and evolve the necessary alternatives of education and communication across society?

Nothing is conceded by power without a struggle. While proposing voting ‘Yes, But’ as the least worst option on Thursday, our central focus (whatever the referendum result) needs to be on ensuring that struggles and movements for eco-social justice are continued, deepened and expanded — working to make real the claims that other, better Scotlands (and worlds) are possible, necessary and indeed, under construction.

Gordon Asher is an educator/learner, ‘activist’ and cultural worker, an editor at Variant and board member of Strickland Distribution. He works as a Learning Developer at the University of the West of Scotland and is studying part-time for a PhD at the University of Glasgow.

Leigh French is also an editor at Variant and board member of Strickland Distribution.

 

http://roarmag.org/2014/09/scottish-referendum-yes-but/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

DIGITAL MUSIC NEWS

Pandora Finalizes Publishing Deal With BMG

 

Handshake      Not content to wait for the greater music industry to enact significant changes, Pandora last week announced it has signed a direct deal for music rights with BMG, the world’s fourth-largest music publisher. The arrangement includes the portions of its catalog represented by ASCAP and BMI, the two major licensing groups that have long handled the rights for millions of songs in the U.S. As reported by The New York Times, BMG’s large roster includes songwriters who have written major hits for such performers as Adele, One Direction, Beyoncé, and Frank Sinatra; the company is part of German media conglomerate Bertelsmann.

Even though BMG remains a member of ASCAP and BMI, Pandora bypassed them by making the direct deal for what analysts believe is a higher royalty rate than those two organizations – which are governed by decades-old federal regulation – are able to obtain on their own. In exchange, the deal gives BMG and its songwriters unspecified “marketing and business benefits,” according to a statement issued by Pandora.

Last month Pandora struck a similar deal with Merlin, which represents thousands of independent record companies in digital licensing negotiations. That agreement is expoected to pay the record labels slightly better royalty rates than would be available through the compulsory licensing terms available to Pandora under United States copyright law, and also give the labels access to valuable marketing insights from Pandora’s vast collection of user data. “We believe direct deals with labels offer better content cost visibility in the longer term, and we think they improve relations between Pandora and the artists,” Nomura analyst Anthony DiClemente wrote in a research note following the BMG announcement. 

Liberty CEO: Sirius XM Is Eyeing Streaming

Expansion To Drive Competitive Growth

 

Sirius XM      It appears Sirius XM finally may be realizing digital streaming technology is leap-frogging right past satellite radio distribution. While the Liberty Media-backed company entered the streaming audio space several years ago, recent comments made by President/CEO Greg Maffei indicate the satcaster is studying the growth curves of other streaming music services and determining how to compete on a major scale.

“We are watching what happens in streaming,” Maffei said at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia conference in New York last week. “Taking Sirius XM’s unique content beyond the car in the home and in the office, it’s an opportunity we’ve not yet attacked.”

His comments make it clear that Sirius XM, which depends heavily on subscribers getting satellite-radio receivers in their cars, is interested in becoming a bigger player in the internet-based streaming space. According to the New York Post, subscribers who prefer to listen to the service on their mobile devices can get a stand-alone online radio package for $14.99 a month, less than the current “all-access” package, which costs $18.99. 

No Big Surprise, Really: Clear Channel

Changes Its Name To iHeartMedia

 

     Yesterday’s announcement that Clear Channel Media & Entertainment was changing its name to iHeartMedia seemed to cause a heart attack throughout the broadcasting industry, but a few analysts actually saw the change coming months ago. The company increasingly was using the “iHeartRadio” line to brand its stations on the local level, and the Clear Channel name – associated with billions of dollars of debt – was considered clunky by many folks inside the radio business and on Wall Street. While the “heart” part of iHeartMedia itself may seem a decade out of date, the name change re-brands the company among younger listeners (and ostensibly, media buyers) who associate it with the iHeartMusic Festival which, not coincidentally, begins Friday (Sept. 19) in Las Vegas.

The name-change is “a reflection of  the fact that the company has changed radically over last several years,” Clear Channel Chief Executive Robert Pittman said in a statement. “We have massive consumer reach and influence across our platforms because we know how to program the live content people want to hear. Right now we are the largest mobile media company in existence, and we deliver more live programming than any other media company today.”

Indeed, the aforementioned iHeartRadio Festival attracts tens of thousands of fans each year, and the TV broadcasts last year drew millions of viewers. Also televised are the iHeartRadio Jingle Ball, iHeartRadio Pool Party, and several iHeartRadio concerts a year. Additionally, Clear Channel’s inaugural iHeartRadio Music Awards on NBC in May attracted 5.5 million viewers.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, much of the public has come to equate the Clear Channel name with corporate consolidation of the radio and concert industries. However, according to a recent study released by Edison Research, iHeartRadio’s brand is second in recognition in audio streaming, behind Pandora’s 31% share with 9%, and ahead of iTunes Radio’s 8% share. While the name change affects all former Clear Channel radio stations and its digital audio platform, the company’s outdoor business will retain the name Clear Channel Outdoor. 

Apple’s U2 Music Giveaway Breaks Bad

 

     It all began with U2’s appearance with Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook last week. As the company made its predicted announcement of the new iPhone 6 and a new wearable wrist device, the company blundered into what Upstart Business Journal called an “unforced error” with its decision to automatically add the band’s new album “Songs of Innocence” to 500 million iTunes accounts. This meant that, if a user’s device was set to automatically download newly-purchased music, the brand-new U2 album would be sitting on the iPhone, iPad, etc.

One week later, in the midst of a massive backlash from angry iTunes customers, Apple has been forced to put up a special page for users who want to erase “Songs of Innocence” from their libraries with a removal tool that indicates how wrong a seemingly good idea can go. “Nothing pisses off the audience more than pushing something they don’t want and didn’t ask for,” media analyst Bob Lefsetz said in a newsletter. “They’d have been better off releasing it on YouTube; that’s where the digital generation goes for music. iTunes is a backwater. It may be the number one sales outlet, but it’s not the number one music platform… not even close.”

The stunt did little to help U2’s chart prospects, either. Billboard last week announced its refusal to count the album release on its charts, even though Apple paid $100 million to get it there. “While U2 surprised the music world by releasing its new album, ‘Songs of Innocence,’ as a free download to iTunes Store account holders and for streaming on Beats Music, you won’t see it on the Billboard 200 albums chart for another month and a half,” the industry magazine said in a statement.

“Free or giveaway albums are not eligible for inclusion on Billboard’s album charts and do not count toward sales tracked by Nielsen SoundScan. “Once ‘Songs of Innocence’ goes on sale beginning Oct. 14, it will then set its sights on Billboard’s sales charts. On that date, the album will be available in both standard and deluxe editions to physical and digital retailers, as well as on streaming services other than Beats. Until then, only current or new iTunes or Beats account holders will have access to the album.”

 

Deezer Launches High-End Audio Service

To Compete With Spotify And Beats

 

     French music streaming company Deezer has launched an elite service with what it calls higher sound quality for audiophiles as it tries to differentiate itself from rivals Spotify, Pandora, and Beats Music. According to the Financial Times, the company said it plans to launch the service in the U.S. through a partnership with Sonos, the speaker manufacturer that specializes in wireless audio.

Deezer ostensibly is betting that high-fidelity audio will enhance its appeal in an increasingly crowded and competitive market. The new service, to be called Deezer Elite, will stream “lossless” audio files at a standard of 1,411 kilobits per second. The higher the bitrate of a file, the more detailed the sounds, and Deezer’s high rate is more than four times the top bitrate of Spotify. The service will cost up to $19.99 a month, twice the $9.99 a month Spotify charges.

In a statement, Deezer North America chief executive Tyler Goldman said the company was “focused on super-serving the needs of underserved market segments” such as audio enthusiasts. Many audiophiles have shunned streaming services because their sound quality is usually inferior to that of high-quality downloads, vinyl albums, or CDs, he said.

Still, the market for high-end audio streaming may be limited, because of higher subscription and bandwidth charges costs, and the fact that most people stream music through smartphones and computers, which do not have the capability for high-end audio.

 

Warner Music Consolidates Biz-Dev Unit

 

     Warner Music Group this week consolidated its global business development functions under a single leadership team, with COO Rob Wiesenthal overseeing the company’s digital business development efforts while continuing to report to CEO Steve Cooper. At the same time, the label promoted Jonathan Dworkin to EVP of digital strategy and business development. Dworkin will report to Wiesenthal and continue working on “building global-minded partnerships that expand WMG’s success with artist development.”

As reported by Billboard, Cooper said the new unified structure will give artists a portfolio of “unmatched” innovative services and opportunities. “This move recognizes that digital technology is a driving force across all aspects of our business, and that the pace of change – both globally and locally – requires nimble experimentation,” he said in a statement.

Wiesenthal joined WMG in early 2013 to oversee the company’s partnership with Shazam, and also spearheaded the deal with Clear Channel to become the first U.S. major label to receive artist performance royalty payments when their master recordings are played on the radio. This new role at the label creates an opportunity to “establish new business approaches for artists, and build on WMG’s reputation as the most ambitious and progressive music company in the world,” he said in a statement.

 

A publication of Bunzel Media Resources © 2014

 

 

Leading tech investors warn of bubble risk ‘unprecedented since 1999′

Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel
Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel, whose company was valued at $10bn despite having never turned a profit. Photograph: Jae C. Hong/AP

Two of the world’s leading tech investors have warned the new wave of tech companies and their backers are taking on risk and burning through cash at rates unseen since 1999 when the “dotcom bubble” burst.

Bill Gurley, partner at Silicon Valley-based investor Benchmark, sounded the horn of doom on Monday warning that “Silicon Valley as a whole or that the venture-capital community or startup community is taking on an excessive amount of risk right now.”

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal Gurley, whose investments include OpenTable, Uber and Zillow, said startups were taking on risks in a way “unprecedented since ‘99”.

Gurley said that “more humans in Silicon Valley are working for money-losing companies than have been in 15 years”, and they’re burning through huge piles of cash.

“In 01 or 09, you just wouldn’t go take a job at a company that’s burning $4m a month. Today everyone does it without thinking,” he said.

His comments were backed up Tuesday by Fred Wilson, the New York-based co-founder of Union Square Ventures who has backed companies including Twitter, Tumblr and Zynga.

Burn rates – the amount of money a startup is spending – are “sky high all over the US startup sector right now”, he wrote in a blog post.

“We have multiple portfolio companies burning multiple millions of dollars a month. Thankfully its not our entire portfolio. But it is more than I’d like and more than I’m personally comfortable with,” he wrote.

“I’ve been grumpy for months, possibly for longer than that, about this. I’ve pushed back on long term leases that I thought were outrageous, I’ve pushed back on spending plans that I thought were too aggressive and too risky, I’ve made myself a pain in the ass to more than a few CEOs.”’

The comments come after a new generation of tech companies have attracted record levels of investments at levels that give the profitless businesses eye-watering valuations.

In August Snapchat, the social messaging service, was valued at $10bn after a new round of funding. The free service’s fans send 500m self-deleting messages a day, but Snapchat has yet to declare how it intends to make money. Among the other big tech valuations in recent months are Uber, the taxi app service, which was valued at $18bn after its last round of funding in June, and Airbnb, the short term rentals service, which was valued at $10bn in April.

But the valuations are not the immediate issue, according to the sceptical tech investors. “Valuations can be fixed. You can do a down round (investing at a lower valuation), or three or four flat ones, until you get the price right,” writes Wilson. “But burn rates are exactly that. Burning cash. Losing money. Emphasis on the losing.”

Asked if investors, and the people working for the companies, were distracted by the potential for reward, Gurley said: “Yeah, it’s a whole bunch of things. But you just slowly forget, and half of the entrepreneurs today, or maybe more – 60% or 70% – weren’t around in ‘99, so they have no muscle memory whatsoever.”

http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/sep/16/tech-bubble-warning-investors-dotcom-losing-money

XM24: survival and inspiration against all odds

by ROAR Collective on September 14, 2014

Post image for XM24: survival and inspiration against all oddsThe story of the XM24 squat in Bologna is one of struggle and resistance, of hope and inspiration; a story about the self-management of everyday life.

By Sean Patrick Casey and Giulia Zapata Foresti

XM24 is a self-managed social center and public space in Bologna, Italy. It was first occupied in 2002, but its origins go back to the 1990s, to the social centers and the anti-globalization movement of that decade. It is heterogeneous and non-hegemonic, but it holds anti-fascism, anti-sexism and anti-racism to be the three common points that hold the space, its collectives and its individuals together in a revolutionary and pluralistic identification with the broader anti-capitalist movement.

The object of this article, written by two militants of the space, is to give a sense of our story and daily practice that, we hope, will be useful to comrades outside of the Italian context.

Birth of a global space: 1999-2002

The story of the XM24 social space begins with the protest movement that exploded in 1999 after the Seattle riots. That movement took shape in Bologna the next year, with the creation of the Contropiani network. This network played a central role in the mobilization against the OECD summit. The summit, held in Bologna itself, represented yet another moment in which globalization and development were being discussed behind closed doors, with countless issues not even on the agenda, like worker’s rights, oppression of indigenous peoples and the devastation of the environment under neoliberalism.

The network needed a physical space to organize meetings and prepare the mobilization, so in July 2000 an abandoned warehouse on via Ranzani was occupied, filling an abandoned space with people and their desires. Starting from here many different paths began to intersect, creating a common space around concepts like the need for free circulation of people and of knowledge, a global minimum and living wage, the globalization of rights rather than that of capital.

All these points were at the center of building opposition to neoliberal globalization. The same words and slogans were yelled at the G8 summit in Genoa, in 2001. It was in everyone’s hearts that the cultural and generational multiplicity that made those massive demonstrations possible, the independent information media activism project represented by Indymedia, the Social Forums, legal aid volunteers, joy, determination and militant solidarity, be the only characteristics of that summit. Instead there was harsh repression from the state, culminating in the death of 23-year old Carlo Giuliani; the brutal beatings at the Diaz school; and the legalized torture of detained protesters at the Bolzaneto barracks.

In December 2001 the spaces of via Ranzani were evicted by the police. The city administration then assigned the spaces of the former city fruit and vegetable market, in via Fioravanti 24 to the various collectives which had been based in via Ranzani. The agreement was public, but informal, and as a consequence the initial entry into the 3.000 square meter space represented an occupation. The occupants were not a homogeneous collective with a common political line, but multiple intersecting subjectivities that since Ranzani had been carrying on various political projects.

The occupants were aware that they were giving a space back to the neighborhood – a working class area which was very important in the resistance to fascist occupation. The space had been abandoned for years and was falling apart, ugly, and had become a hotspot for drug dealers and addicts alike.

Now it was revived by people with different life stories and projects, but with a common objective: to short-circuit neoliberal mechanisms, producing social justice and horizontal social spaces. The weekly assembly took on a strong political weight in the self-management of the space in furtherance of these objectives, becoming the space in which to collectively discuss how to keep alive a project that was full of political and social potential.

Repression, reflection, innovation: the first decade of XM24

Brutal police violence, the assassination of Carlo Giuliani and the subsequent media cover up and legal repression did not succeed in neutralizing the social center movement in Italy that XM24 had emerged from, but the long-term effect was both weakening and traumatic. The end of the movement against the war in Iraq (2002-’04) can be taken as the beginning of the “fase di riflusso”, the ebb phase, when the accumulated strength of years of struggle subsided and the movement began to lose traction, street presence and social relevance.

The flip-side of this decrease in collective strength was a sharp increase in the legal repression of activists, and a country-wide attempt to make the occupation of social centers, and the occupation tactic in general, impossible. Historic social centers, including legalized ones, came under increasing pressure from city administrations which attempted to exploit the situation to wipe out decades of political work and struggle.

In Bologna this situation was particularly felt, due to the center-left mayor’s decision to launch a law and order campaign whose main target was the city’s social and housing occupations. Between 2004 and 2007 the police carried out numerous evictions, and activists received hundreds of citations, frequently finding themselves charged with subversion of the democratic order – a law of fascist origin – for actions as simple as the interruption of a city council meeting or the self-reduction of a meal at the university’s cafeteria (the most expensive in Italy).

This period also saw, on a national level, a sharp increase in neo-fascist violence against social centers, activists, migrants and members of the LGBTQ community. This period of relative isolation and repression, which coincided with the first years of XM24’s existence, contributed to the definition of the space’s political priorities, discourses and campaigns.

The political interventions practiced by the space and by the collectives and networks active in it in this period were largely, but not exclusively, along three broad lines: a collective attempt to re-imagine the theory and practice of anti-fascism; the collective and participatory theorizing of self-management; and the support of migrant activism against institutional and cultural racism and labor exploitation.

The desire to re-imagine anti-fascism was a direct result of the heterogeneous and non-hegemonic composition of the assembly of the space. A particular contribution to this debate came from the queer collectives active in the space, which encouraged an analysis of fascism and anti-fascism that took into consideration the patriarchal and hetero-sexist nature of fascist and neo-fascist discourse and culture.

The urban laboratory

The increasing pressure that social spaces were coming under provoked an intense debate regarding the nature of occupation, self-organization and self-management in the context of broader political struggle. Within XM24 itself the debate centered on the relationship of the space to the city administration and more importantly to the Bolognina neighborhood in which it was situated and on whether it was possible to interact with local institutions while at the same time practicing politics in an autonomous way, that is, without falling into a trap and being “recovered” by the mechanisms of capital and its governance.

This approach was tested when the space decided to collectively participate in the Laboratorio di Urbanistica Partecipata (‘Laboratory of Urban Participation’), initiated by the local administration to involve different social realities of the Bolognina neighborhood in the process of deciding the course of a large construction project to be realized in the area. While the end results revealed the bad faith of both the administration and construction companies, the experience proved valuable in terms of relating to local situations outside of the radical left scene, which in the future would prove very valuable.

In order to defend itself, but more importantly to counter-attack the institutional attempt at removing the social center experience from the map, XM24 began the process of developing a collective discourse of self-management. This process centered on common points that permitted the development of a broad and pluralistic political debate: the inseparability of self-management from a political culture and praxis that is anti-fascist, anti-sexist, anti-racist and anti-authoritarian; the political incompatibility of self-management with the legalistic framework of institutional urban policy; and the central role of self-management of spaces and life in the broader anti-capitalist and social justice movement.

In 2008 the On the Move Project was born from the Migrants Coordination, a youth-oriented community organizing project that has become an important voice for working class migrant and Italian youth, many from the Bolognina neighborhood, which has campaigned for citizenship rights for migrant youth born or raised in Italy. XM24 has had a central role in these mobilizations and projects, both as host and more generally as an openly multi-ethnic and anti-racist space, which during a period of increasing institutional and cultural racism never stopped openly opposing racism and supporting (politically, humanly and economically) migrant and anti-racist struggles.

These struggles made Bologna a center for the migrant struggle in the Italian context. Some important examples of this were the first of Migrant Strikes and support for migrant workers of the logistics sector who have carried out dozens of strikes and pickets over the past few years.

Over the years many major events have contributed to the construction of XM24′s political identity and presence. For ten years XM24 was the home of the Anti-MTVday. The event celebrated independence from major labels, accessibility and diversification of underground music, and the self-management of the creation and distribution process. United by the slogan “Stop music business and television lobotomy”, thousands of people from all over Italy and other European countries would come to XM24 for the autumn festival, which in ten years hosted hundreds of bands and independent record labels.

The Bologna Festival Burn of 2013 supported, through concerts, art performances and street art, various other spaces in the city that produce culture from below and develop political, cultural and social alternatives to mainstream models. In 2005 the social center entered into the Critical Wine – Terra e Libertà network, a project that foments the creation of new global sensibilities relating to food and the environment, aiming at liberation from the consumerist model of production and alimentation.

This is the same objective behind CampiAperti, the self-managed cooperative network of farmers who belong to the social center and hold a farmers market of biological produce every Thursday, an event that draws dozens of people, young and old, to the space every week. The social center also has a collective garden, in the shadows of the massive construction works happening behind the space, a little bit of green in a sea of cement and speculation.

Under attack: “The Battle for XM24”

The city administration had promised during its participation in the Laboratory of Urban Participation the massive development project known as Trilogia Navile in the abandoned area behind XM24 would only remove a small part of the social center’s courtyard necessary to construct a roundabout. However, when the final project was made public it was revealed that the actual project called for the demolition of a significant portion of the structure itself; the kitchen, gym and one of two concert spaces.

It became clear that with the pretext of the roundabout the city administration was attempting to weaken, if not eventually evict XM24. The mobilization in defense of the space was a challenging moment in the history of the space, in that it required an enormous amount of discussion, research and organizing, attempting to maintain consensus, transparency and horizontalism in every moment of the campaign.

The parting shot of the campaign was the painting of an enormous mural on the wall intended for demolition, by world-famous street artist Blu, whose murals have adorned XM24′s walls since its birth. The mural depicts the city of Bologna as a Lord of the Rings-style clash between good and evil, center and periphery, social movements and city rulers. The mural drew massive attention to the campaign, on a political and artistic level, and became a symbol of the struggle to save the space.

The campaign organized several very successful events in which artists, writers and musicians performed in support of the campaign, drawing thousands of people to XM24 and reminding city administrators what would happen if the space were evicted.

The campaign culminated in the blocking of the first day of works to construct the roundabout, in which activists conducted a press conference and presented city administrators with an alternative set of plans, drawn up by comradely architects, for the construction of the roundabout.  This proved to be a winning strategy. Within hours a new round table was called by the city and within a few weeks the project for the demolition of part of XM24 was abandoned, and a roundabout similar to that initially projected by the Urban Laboratory was built.

Autogestione and the City: a committee for self-management

One of the main points in the discussions between XM24 and the city administration was the absence of any formal legal agreement between the space and the city. The city initially demanded that XM24 sign a traditional agreement, in which the space would constitute itself as a cultural association and sign a strict contract for the management of the space.

This proposal was rejected, on both political and practical grounds. In the face of this resolute rejection the City relented on its demands and an agreement was reached in which the space was “assigned” to a third party committee. This committee was established to permit the assignment process, without reducing the horizontal, non-hierarchical assembly of XM to a legally recognizable form.

The committee is a third party subject that vouches for the activities of XM24 without representing it. This agreement allowed the multifaceted experience of XM24 to go forward, reducing, but not eliminating, the gentrification-induced political pressure that the social center and its collectives face every day.

The creation of the committee in December 2013 coincided with the signing of an agreement with the city that for the moment legalizes the occupation of XM24. But it has a broader goal, which is the promotion and support of self-managed social experiences in Bologna with the objective of encouraging the spread of occupation tactics and self-management in the city.

These tactics are also seen as a fundamental part of the construction of radical direct democracy and social and political protagonism and participation from below to respond to the needs of communities. The political wager of the committee is that it will be a tool to defend self-managed spaces and practice social conflict. Various social centers and spaces from Bologna have decided to participate in it.

The situation today

On a day-to day basis, XM24 is a center for the self-management of everyday life in the Bolognina neighborhood. The Ampioraggio People’s Bike Shop, organizers of Bologna Critical Mass, the annual Human Motor mobilization against the Bologna Motor Show, and convergence space for many neighborhood residents, young and less young, migrant and Italian. The People’s Kitchen, a vegetarian, cruelty-free space has been a vital resource for political and social groups to organize benefit dinners for projects, legal aid and political prisoners for many years now. The People’s Free Gym is an open space for neighborhood residents to do yoga, aerial circus and many other arts without spending money.

The only central decision-making space is the assembly, every Tuesday night, frequently beginning late, always ending after midnight. It is a space of collective responsibility, where decisions affecting the whole space are made and where new people can come to propose projects or events. It is public and usually made up of thirty to forty people.

As in many spaces, finding a consensus is not always easy or automatic, but through horizontal decision-making and free participation the space is still functioning, twelve years on. The space is completely volunteer-run and self-financed, and is continuously hosting new projects in which those proposing are welcomed, but expected to take responsibility of the fact that they too are now participating in the management of the space, and not merely using it.

Giulia Zapata Foresti is a political activist who conducts research with a political and legal framework on minority rights and on the criminalization of social protest at an international level. She collaborates with different universities, has had experience in cooperation projects in Latin America and she is an independent publicist.

Sean Patrick Casey is an activist in the Migrants Coordination of Bologna, he writes for and belongs to the editorial collectives of Connessioni Precarie and Bolognina Basement.

http://roarmag.org/2014/09/xm24-social-center-bologna/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

data about how people behave on online dating sites paints a bleak picture about our true attitudes

OkCupid founder: “I wish people exercised more humanity” on OkCupid

OkCupid founder: "I wish people exercised more humanity" on OkCupid
(Credit: Ollyy via Shutterstock/Salon)

In late July, Christian Rudder, a co-founder of the online dating site OkCupid, plunged himself into the middle of an Internet maelstrom when he published a post with a classic poke-the-anthill headline: “We Experiment on Human Beings!”

The provocation came in the middle of a storm of commentary sparked by the revelations that Facebook had been purposefully manipulating its users’ emotions by tinkering with its news feed. Rudder contended that such tweaking was commonplace and normal. In OkCupid’s case, the company had temporarily adjusted its matching algorithm so that some people ended up with recommendations that the algorithm would normally have considered bad matches — and vice versa, some people whom the algorithm should have concluded were good matches were told they were a bad fit. There was no ill will involved; from Rudder’s perspective, it was just an experiment designed to serve the larger goal of improving the overall OkCupid user experience.

The Internet reacted harshly. But in an unplanned twist, the post turned out to be good publicity for Rudder’s new book, “Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One’s Looking.” Case in point: I had an advance review copy of the book sitting on my desk, but it was only after the hoopla over Rudder’s blog post that I took a closer look and decided it was a must-read.

And indeed it is. “Dataclysm” is a well-written and funny look at what the numbers reveal about human behavior in the age of social media. It’s both profound and a bit disturbing, because, sad to say, we’re generally not the kind of people we like to think — or say — we are.

Rudder begins his book with a distressing opening salvo: two charts that reveal what age groups men and women generally find attractive. From age 20 to 50, women are consistent — they’re drawn to men who are in roughly the same age cohort. Men are equally consistent: From age 20-50, they are attracted to 20-year-olds. The discussion is over: Men are dogs.



Rudder’s data on race leads to similar implications — prejudice is alive and well on online dating states, and what we say — and don’t say — in our profiles offers impressive support for cultural stereotyping. Rudder does the math on what different groups are most or least likely to say in their profiles: Black men, for example, hardly ever mention Belle and Sebastian, snorkeling or “Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.” White women don’t talk about slow jams, j-pop or Malcolm X. White guys, however, are really into mentioning their “blue eyes,” brewing beer, and Robert Heinlein. Asian men frequently say “tall for an Asian,” “gangnam style” and “noodle soup.”)

Rudder treats these insights into the human condition with bemused — and very useful — intelligence. We’re only just beginning to understand how much we can learn about ourselves and others from the data that is constantly being harvested from us. The more we know, the better armed we are to navigate the future.

Rudder spoke by phone to Salon from OkCupid’s offices in New York.

So men are sexists, and we’re all racist?

The more you look at the data, the more it does confirm the cynics’ intuition about humanity. People online are free to act out their worst impulses with very little incentive to act out their best. I guess it just goes to show how politeness or propriety keeps us decent human beings. Offline, society actually has a very good effect on behavior in a very large sense.

That raises an uncomfortable question: Does our wholesale move online undermine how society traditionally keeps us in line?

I’m not qualified to give a real opinion on where society as a whole is headed, but I think when you look at stuff like rage storms on Twitter, or even the thing that happened yesterday — the celebrity nude photos being leaked — you see that there are definitely some disgusting impulses that the Internet can gratify instantaneously. In the same way Cool Ranch Doritos gratify certain taste receptors that are probably not very good for my digestive tract, things like Twitter or Reddit or even OkCupid gratify our tastes in ways that should probably best be left unsated.

How does that make you feel as a researcher? Have you become more cynical as a result of what you’ve learned by watching how people behave on OkCupid?

I definitely have a certain amount of ambivalence about the Internet generally and what we do at OkCupid. OkCupid does a lot of great things. We do find people love, we do create marriage and children and happiness in a pure sense, in a way that, say, Amazon does not. But there is a downside: In the process of finding that love or sex or whatever they’re looking for, people are able to be more judgmental. It’s a fraught thing. I can see the good and the bad in all this, but where it all comes out in the end, I’m not sure. I think the existence of the Internet is a good thing, but I do wish people exercised more humanity in using these tools.

I’d like to break the format of the typical Q&A a bit, and just read some lines from your book that jumped out at me, and see if I can prompt you to elaborate on them. For example, you wrote that “the Internet will democratize our fundamental narrative.” What does that mean?

What I meant was that the Internet will enable, on a mass scale, something like what Howard Zinn was doing in his “People’s History of the United States.” Zinn’s trying to reach for what the common person thought about World War I or the Civil War, or go back and find out what a housewife in 1970 was thinking about her life. But by and large he had to put it all together from a few diaries and a ton of leg work and obviously there’s a lot of selection bias involved.

But in the future, as people continue to live out their lives through these technologies, all of our lives are almost by definition going to be captured. The computer that is crunching all that stuff pulls us all together. In a very real sense, we are all given the same weight in any of these calculations.

I guess that connects directly to another sentence that caught my eye: “With data, history can become deeper, it can become more.”

That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

How about, “It’s when people don’t understand their own hearts I get interested”?

I like it when you are able to look at a behavior in two ways. One: what people think they are doing or wish they were doing, and two: what they actually do. At OkCupid we have a great mechanism for looking at that: We have all these match questions where we ask people what they believe or what they think, and then we can go in and measure exactly what they are actually doing. I just think that the space between self-image and action is very interesting.

What data points jumped out at you the most?

Well, the most obvious thing is racial messaging patterns. We asked people about race and everybody is like, yeah, interracial marriage is totally great. Something like 96 percent are totally fine with it, or support it. We also asked people questions like “would you ever date someone who told a racist joke” and the answers are very strongly liberal in the way you would expect. Everybody is fine with it, blah blah blah. But then you go out and look at what people do or who they choose for themselves, and you see that this is just not the case. Race is a huge factor and certain types of interracial relationships — I wouldn’t say are taboo, but certainly in the aggregate they are less desirable.

Again this gets back to what we were talking about at the very beginning. If that’s what I want why don’t I just put that into the form? It would work better, if I was just honest with OkCupid and myself about what I wanted.

You mention Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth” and you wrote, “for the beauty myth, social media signifies judgment day.” Is this just a reflection of the fact that women who are considered highly attractive get by far the most messages from men?

I was having a little bit of fun. There’s just so much judgment that goes on in social media. If most myths are built around some kind of cataclysm or apocalypse, then for the beauty myth, Ragnarok is social media. Men who are free to judge photos without conforming to social norms go crazy clicking girls in bikinis.

Maybe the most discomfiting point you make in your book is your acknowledgment that the kind of people who work for the NSA crunching our data are much smarter than you are and have access to far more information. Eventually, the sophistication of the algorithms will become so great that pretty much everything important about us will be inferred from just a few data points. That’s scarily determinist. Do we even have free will when our data trail tells employers or the government or prospective mates exactly who we are?

That is a great question, and I don’t think I can give an answer that is both hopeful and honest. The tech industry side of me wants to say that this isn’t just a problem of social media — the same thing happens with your credit score, for example. But you are right. It is scary. There will always be highly motivated, powerful entities using this data for their own good, which often implies an adversarial relationship against you. I will say one thing: If we consider Facebook as stand-in for all this stuff, I think people have generally approached these social media networks with a level of naiveté that is changing. We’re beginning to understand the pitfalls of volunteering all this data about ourselves.

That’s why a book like “Dataclysm” is important. The more we know about what you guys are finding out, the easier it will be to set societal guidelines for how this information can be used, and to become masters of our information.

Exactly right. It’s a strange time for me and I’m sure for you too and anybody else working in this milieu. The technologies are pervasive but comprehension of them is not.

Which leads me to my final question. Let’s revisit that experiment in which you tweaked the matching algorithm. I think for a lot of people that smacked of manipulation that crossed over the line. It seemed different than just changing the layout of a page to see what works better. It seemed like you were messing with people’s minds. Why did you do it?

Let me just step back and add a little more context. So, we tweaked an algorithm. Now, some algorithms can be considered as a sort of fact. If you are trying to pull a record out of a database there is a canonical or fastest way or best way to do it and to deviate from that would be silly or would be wrong in a real sense. But when we describe people as good or bad matches — the truth is for any two people on OkCupid, we just don’t know. We’re making a guess; our algorithm is a version of a guess. It’s not a fact.

There are tons of different ways to bring people together. We often use common interests, like how well you and I satisfy each other. But there are other potentially workable heuristics, like, for example, “opposites attract.” The test I wrote about in that blog post was on a continuum of those kinds of tests: We were really genuinely trying to figure out what works best, how to improve the user experience.

What we were doing was different, to me, than “lying.” Lying would be distorting matters of fact, rather than opinion. I have no idea what your sexual orientation is, but just imagine if you were gay, and I go and tell people that you are straight. That’s very clearly false, and possibly harmful. We would never do that because that is altering a fact about people … But with any algorithm that is about how to recommend something — there is no canonical perfect way to do it. So we treat it sort of like an opinion.

But doesn’t that enter a fuzzy area? A selling point of OkCupid is supposed to be that it actually works, which implies that your “opinions” as to who is a good match are actually facts …

For sure. For sure. But part of what makes us sure that we can give people the best match, and that we can make good guesses about what two people are going to get along, is that we are constantly working on refining our methods.

Look, I definitely understand the feelings about what we did. Especially given the way that I first laid it out, and then later, in the way I reacted to the media. Both my presentation and reaction were flawed. But we did not do it to mess with people. Everything we do at OkCupid is done with discretion, and, I hope, some level of emotional intelligence.