Monday 30 May 2016

A Short Essay on Why I St-advocated Person of Interest to Rob Zacny on Twitter

For background, listen to the Idle Weekend Podcast at from about the 30 minute mark. I'll be posting this on the Idle Thumbs forums as well.

So let’s talk Person of Interest. (Mild spoilers warning: I talk about thematic concerns, and divulge some character arc conclusions in general terms. More important warning: I make a lot of unsupported generalizations in this essay. I don’t necessarily want you to agree or disagree with them – I’m more trying to paint a picture of where my head space is at).

I grew up a nerd, in a time where being a nerd was an isolating experience. I didn’t feel particularly isolated – there were plenty of people to play Dungeons & Dragons at school with, and I was onto the nascent Internet pretty early on, as my Dad ran a BBS for the local Commodore 64 user group. But I always had this sense of “otherness” – that what I was doing wasn’t part of the mainstream culture – but you could easily attribute this feeling of otherness to the process of being a child, then a teenager.

It became clear to me as an adult, that there was a transformative social experiment going on with our lives facilitated by the twin new technologies of financial derivatives (for maths majors) and the Internet (for everyone else) – in short, the nerds were taking over. And with the advent of Facebook , it was equally clear to everyone else that the nerds had won. We were now the mainstream cultural force – modulo something about sports – and the last ten years has seen a complete takeover of film, and transformation of vast areas of television and literature. There’s another essay or even a book to be written about this (if there hasn’t been already), but let’s just say that “nerds now own narrative” and leave it at that for the moment.

How does this relate to Person of Interest? Because as Jonathan Nolan and Greg Nolan have said this season the ultimate bad guys in PoI are Mark Zuckerburg and Isaac Asimov. That is to say, they are us.

(If you don’t believe me, there’s a speech that Harold Finch makes at the end of the first episode of Season 2 where he lays his cards on the table of why he designed the machine the way he did. And it’s clear that the thing that actually terrifies him the most is himself. I just wish they hadn’t miscast the actor who plays Greer who comes across too Emperor Palpatine to make the counter-case effectively (although I loved his scene in the Fifth Element which is one of my top 5 sci fi scenes ever (man I need to re-watch the Fifth Element, it’s the sci fi Big Trouble in Little China))).

But at the same time, Person of Interest is written for us. Mr Robot is the only other show on television that cares about the technology of computers as much as we think we do: Person of Interest has about as realistic cryptography, AI and hacking as makes sense to show on television, and if you start rolling your eyes at something particularly outlandish (especially in season 5), it is likely that you are wrong and the PoI writer’s room has been doing more research than you have. One of the real pleasures of watching Person of Interest in near real time is that they are often as close to or ahead of the bleeding edge technology concerns of the day than the mainstream media (my favorite is the buffer overflow exploit in If-Then-Else although there is an interrogation scene the next episode which under 30s will appreciate much more than I can). Person of Interest predicted Edward Snowden, not the other way around.

The most unrealistic thing that Person of Interest portrays is the public actually caring about a massive state run surveillance program. And that’s where I think Person of Interest loses the nerd narrative: it cares about heroes in a way that we have been taught to distrust. It celebrates flawed individuals who genuinely want to redeem themselves – whereas we celebrate stories without heroes (Breaking Bad), or with selfish heroes who are more concerned with discovering who they are (Mr Robot).

Person of Interest cares about redemption so much that up until season 4, every “big bad” also redeems themselves. And not just in the last minute quip or sacrificial act that PoI does so well, but in having a reason for doing what they are doing, and being ‘right’ about their reasons. Season 4 and 5’s biggest misstep is losing sight of this: there are at least 3 villains in these seasons who deserve a flashback story but don’t get it, which is doubly annoying in that 2 of them are thematic shadows of other characters rather than fully developed characters in their own right. If you have difficulty getting any of the season 4 villains, look around and try to figure out what else in the story their relationships are analogous to.

That explains my love of the show in general terms and why I think we as nerds should be watching – what it doesn’t explain is why I was stalking/advocating (to explain the portmanteau) Rob Zacny about it.

That’s a much more specific issue about how we as a community talk to each other – or whether we even exist as a community any more. To go back to back to the idea of “the nerds have won” – I don’t think that many of us feel like we’ve actually achieved this. Sure, we’ve bent culture to our will, but all that seems to have created is a huge sense of entitlement. What is missing from nerd-dom, and where I think we’ve damaged society and why we still feel isolated, is our general lack of civic engagement. I’m not talking about political engagement, but our roots in the wider community – volunteer work, club and community group membership, local political engagement. Criticize sports culture all you want but at the very least it forces you to be a team player. Because we’ve helped weaken the social bonds around us, we’ve helped the Baby Boomers get away with the lowest financial contribution to society of any modern generation, and those 10 years older than me drive women out of information technology, where they used to be the majority.

The Internet has enabled some engagement, but over the last 10 years, this has gone from the transformative experience I was incredibly fortunate enough to be a part of, to the fractured cliques we see now. Most of this blame lies with mainstream media and advertising, which successfully killed blogging as a viable platform, and left podcasting as one of the few great places left to have a meaningful conversation with a wider audience, because you can’t metric the medium.

Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have tried to get someone else to watch Person of Interest over social media. I would have written a blog post similar to this essay, and relied on an aggregator site like Slashdot to pick it up and amplify it. These days, I could slowly build an audience by podcasting (don’t get me started on how Patreon breaks things) and I know it’s possible because I’ve done so. But I’ve also discovered that it’s very difficult to get your audience to follow you – I’ve gone from game modder, to board game modder to hopefully boardgame and RPG designer, and most of the audience I’ve built are still only happy if I talk about roguelikes. So instead, I’ve gone to someone I hugely respect, and begged them to get them to experience and then talk about this thing I love from their slightly taller soap box.

And I’ll be more than happy to do so again.