Well, sure, okay. So, my name is Joseph Heath. I'm currently a professor in the department of philosophy at the University of Toronto. I've actually been here now since 1995, which helps establish my age: I'm 50 years old. I was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and my parents were sort of hippie back-to-the-landers. I actually grew up on a hobby farm outside of Saskatoon in a house that my parents were building as we lived in it.
That, actually, is where the interest in counterculture came from -- was because I was raised, you know, they say the fish don't notice the water because it's what they're swimming in.
So, all of this kind of '60s ambiance and all of those ideas was just second nature to me. That was the world I lived in growing up. So, in the 1980's I became a punk-rocker and was hugely involved in counterculture, and at the time as a punk-rocker thought that what we were doing was just the exact opposite of what our hippie parents had been doing. So, we thought we were really were rejecting all of that. It was only much later -- largely from studying philosophy, reading books, reading school stuff, reading critical theory -- that I started to discover that despite the fact with punk we were explicitly rebelling against what hippies have been doing, we actually shared 90 percent of the same worldview. So, we actually weren't doing anything all that different. We were actually sort of playing out the same script with just slightly different figures and also just thinking, "Oh, this time, with more effort. We're gonna basically try the same thing that they tried, but we're just gonna do it better."
That's right. Yeah. That's exactly it.
So, the subtitle of the book The Rebel Sell could have definitely been: "Why Everything I Used to Believe Turned out to be Wrong." Because it was at some point, coming to realize that there was a lot of theoretical assumptions underlying this whole countercultural idea, the idea of a cultural rebellion that was deeply problematic. And in a lot of ways it wasn't working any better for punks than it was for hippies. But also, there was elements of it that were in a kind of death spiral, right? Which is one of the problems with rebellion, that you have to always have a more extreme form of rebellion.
It was kind of obvious we were reaching the limits of how extreme rebellion could be. [Laughs.] It just became a huge circle nuisance. So, the book was definitely -- then having gone through the whole process of graduate school, studying philosophy, reading so much of the work that inspired the thinking of people in the 1960's, then the book was an attempt to go through and say: What was salvageable, what was right, what was wrong in the ideas that were motivating my generation and my parent's generation?
Well, this doesn't have to be the central lens of this because where I'm usually at with this project, I'm two or three steps removed from this lens and focusing it elsewhere. But just for more context, what awareness of videogame culture and the videogame industry? When I say those words, what does that conjure up in your mind?
Well, yeah, I, as well, sort of came of age just when videogames were becoming a big thing. And so, I've been a gamer since high school and still am one. I participate in videogame culture to the extent that I play online shooters and I kind of vaguely follow what's going on with kids these days. [Laughs.]
Well, that's kind of a full-time job, though. [Laughs.]
So, I teach critical theory and I teach a lot on subculture and one of the things that happened is a lot of subculture -- there was a period of time where, like, when I was young: Subculture, punk subculture, happened in a physical location. Clubs and stuff like that. It was pretty underground simply because the culture was still pretty much preoccupied with selling stuff to baby boomers. So people weren't that really interested in what was going on in the underground scene, right? There was a period of time where subculture kind of just dissipated entirely because everything became transparent. Every scene could be found and so on because you could just go on YouTube and see what people were doing.
Now it's kinda weird though because it's obvious that subculture has entirely moved onto the internet. Like, if you look at all those impulses that were being acted out in punk clubs or at Haight-Ashbury by the hippies and stuff like that? All those impulses now are being channeled into these internet communities, from the alt-right to the control-left and stuff. And so, what kids are up to these days has actually become again totally opaque to old people like me.
Well, and as you mentioned, the punks and the hippies -- I'm guessing if you pay partial attention to this, but have you seen the label "punk" applied to games as a way to understand the culture?
Only sort of in passing. Once again, these things are sort of accessible to old people. I mean, I recently read Angela Nagle's book Kill All Normies, which I found extremely helpful at helping me to understand what people are up to. And also, the entire phenomenon of the rise of the countercultural right is something that I find really interesting. Yeah.
Do you think it's overstated, the links between gamer culture and that? That's something I'm asked about all the time by people who are not as closely following it. I'm never quite sure what to tell them.
Well, so, one of the things that I found in Nagle's discussion and in a lot of the current stuff that indicated one of the arguments that Andrew [Potter] and I were making in The Rebel Sell, was that we were criticizing the countercultural idea. The thought that just transgressing norms has some kind of intrinsically political and progressive political valence to it.
So, one of the big ideas of the 1960's that ultimately came from Freud was the thought that rules were intrinsically repressive. Like, what's wrong with our society is too many rules. So, when you broke a rule, no matter what the rule was, whether it was manners or something obviously repressive, both of those were politically radical and progressive. So, as we put it in the book, we said: "The hipster cooling his heels in a jazz club in the late '50s was seen as the most profound critic of modern society."
What we argued there was that, well, was not true. That it depends on what the rule is you're breaking. Some rules are really good. Some rules are bad. [Laughs.] And that you can't imagine a society that doesn't have rules. And so, just engaging in social deviance or transgression or whatever is not politically progressive. So, the rise of the alt-right and the countercultural right and so on has definitely vindicated that. What you definitely have seen -- it's quite right to say that the alt-right is a kind of countercultural right because one of the things it does is it celebrates transgression. Except in this case, the norms that they're really into breaking are the norms of politically correctness. Namely, norms that progressive people are fond of.
But what it shows is just breaking rules -- so, talking about Nazis and this kind of stuff, everyone goes, "Oh my God, I can't believe you said that." It's the same game everyone's been playing, it's just now there's a bunch of people who have more of a right-wing political valence who are playing the same game the people on the left were playing for 30, 40 years.
Yeah. But I've seen it explained or asserted that, "Oh, Gamergate got Donald Trump elected." I mean, are these -- [Laughs.] Is that overly reductive? Or do you think that actually has some merit, that line of thinking?
Well, one doesn't want to overstate the impact of these things. But I think that, for example, is what explains people like Milo Yiannopoulos saying that going to church is the most punk thing you can do. Right?
I think I got that quote right.
Yeah. No. That sounds like something he would say.
There's an element of which he's right about that, to the extent that what punk was about was, like, breaking rules and shocking people. As Nagle points out as well, there were lots of punks who played around with Nazi insignia. Sid Vicious had his little swastika. Siouxsie from Siouxsie and the Banshees got in trouble for swastikas and stuff like that.
Not quite the same thing, but Lemmy from Motörhead. It’s a recurring thing.
Yeah. Well, those guys weren't exactly punks. [Laughs.] But there were a lot of people in the punk-rock canon who did a lot of stuff that seemed pretty right-wing just for shock value. But at the time, everybody knew they weren't serious. They weren't whatever. But it was all just shock value. So, I mean, punk had a certain amount of -- like, what's the point of vomiting on stage? That was a big innovation of punk.
Like, yeah, what's the point of vomiting onstage or shitting onstage? What does that accomplish? It's not really progressive. It's kind of gross.
But at the time, we really bought into it. Maybe not you. Me. Like, we in that subculture were like, "Yeah man, we're breaking the rules and showing it to the man." So then -- the point is that that is not left-wing. It's not progressive. It's just breaking rules.
So, in going to church --
Are you talking about GG Allin?
Yeah. I saw him a long time ago. [Laughs.]
Anyhow. So, you know, that's a way to shock people. Well, now, the dominant sensibility is one in which going to church shocks people in certain circles. So, maybe going to church is a punk thing. But what it shows is just how politically vacuous punk was at some level. Like, just shocking people is not progressive.
Right. There's nothing behind it.
There's interesting figures, too. Like, actually, Eminem is kind of an interesting transitional figure. So, he was just playing the same game of transgression and shocking, etc., etc. And he's kind of politically hard to pin down but he seems like a right-winger. Like, he doesn't seem like a progressive guy. Doesn't seem like a bad guy. But he was one of these people that the left was like tentatively embracing him, again, just because of this fetishization of transgression. Like, he's a guy who's super-comfortable with the alt-right.
It's funny because I was just thinking about him the other day and the song he did with Elton John. Maybe you're right in the sense that these things can be very vacuous. Like, that felt like a winking marketing and shock gimmick than any sort of statement, right?
Yeah, or -- he made a lot of money and got a lot of mileage out of being homophobic, wrote a lot of catchy lyrics all on a homophobic theme.
But then doing a thing with Elton John was kinda like, "Oh yeah, I wasn't serious about it.” And so then he gets sort of baptized and accepted. But, you know, it's still -- I think you know which side his bread was buttered on, right?
So it's a little bit like Donald Trump. I mean, Donald Trump plays a lot of the same sort of games where he'll say something 10, 15 times but then he'll go and hug Nancy Pelosi and call her Nancy. And that doesn't suddenly make him a democrat. Same thing with Eminem.
Right. So, I guess to bring it back to games, is there anything that you find weird or circular about the ways people talk about videogames online?
I mean, I'm not sure what to say about that. I do understand -- I think what's been going on with videogames and with Gamergate is a little bit tangential to all of this. It has a lot more to do with the sort of environment that boys are growing up with in our society and the extent to which videogames have offered boys in particular sort of the one area in which they're pretty much completely free from parental supervision. There's a domain of culture that sort of relentlessly panders to the interest of boys. I mean, pretty relentlessly. So I wrote a blog post about this recently on the whole, "Why boys don't read." I should mention I have a 13-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son who both read a lot and play videogames a lot. I play videogames with them. It's true.
So I've been watching pretty carefully the way culture works for young people right now. There's absolutely no question that -- I mean, my son has grown up in an environment that is just completely saturated with girl-power messages from the books that they get given to read in books to what's available now in young-adult literature to the pep talks to the clothing they buy and so on and so forth. The other day I was at Children's Place, a kid's store, right? I'm buying back-to-school clothes for my kids.
They have -- the store is divided down the middle, boys on one side, girls on the other side. So, you can really see what the culture is saying to boys and girls. So, you go on the boys' side and there are all these graphic T-shirts. Like, 40 graphic T-shirts and all of them are the stereotypical boy stuff. At least half of them are on a videogame theme, like an Xbox controller and "gaming is life" and stuff like that. That and, like, skateboards. Whatever. Boy stuff.
And then you go over to the girls' side and it's just kinda crazy girl stuff like pink unicorns and two-thirds of it's pink and sequined and so on and so forth. But I was looking at the T-shirts and about a third of them are on a girl-power theme. So, they're like, "future CEO" or, "I'm gonna be the boss." This kinda stuff, right? And again, which is totally fine. I think that's great for my daughter. Whatever. But there weren't any shirts over on the boy side that said "future CEO." [Laughs.] The assumption is that boys come up with that idea all on their own, whereas girls need to have T-shirts to re-inform that message.
But, you know, 12-year-old boys, their experience of girls is that girls are a foot taller, a lot smarter, physically dominant. Their experience of girl power is very different from that of a 50-year-old man.
So boys grew up in this environment where they're kind of sitting around watching girls get a huge amount of encouragement from the culture to kind of go out and make something of themselves and this kind of stuff. And boys are like, "Oh, go play videogames."
So, what they do is they play videogames and the fact is that what they're doing when they're playing videogames is almost completely in a different world from the world of books, the world of television even, the world of the schoolyard and so on. And also, it's because parents, in my experience, don't take videogame ratings seriously at all and they pay no attention whatsoever to what's going on in these videogames. Partly because they themselves don't play them. So, because I play them, I actually have opinions on which games I'm gonna let my kids play and which games I'm not gonna let them play. [Laughs.]
But my experience of parents is that the other parents of kids in my kid's class is they think of videogames as being juvenile, and as a result they treat the whole category as though it was all young-adult content. So, you know, their 10-year-olds are playing Call of Duty and Witcher and GTA and stuff like that. The parents are like, "Oh yeah, whatever." I won't my kids play GTA games because I think they're super-antisocial. Like, the whole fantasy is a fantasy of antisocial behavior.
I had interviewed a 13-year-old girl for this project who told me about when GTA got taken away from her: She was accidentally punching someone on the street but I think she was looking for the button to shake hands or something like that.
Uh huh. [Laughs.]
That's the way she told it, anyway.
I find that game funny. It's odd in the sense that I watch people and they really enjoy playing it. The joy of it is purely the antisocial behavior in any case.
But it's like a child's -- it's a young teenager or child's view of what adult stuff is like.
Do you know what I mean?
Yeah. A lot of games, the question is what's the fantasy?
Like, what's the core fantasy in the game? So, for me, a long time ago I was in an Unreal Tournament clan for a long time. I used to play pretty seriously. So I was talking to a guy in my clan. He was like, "Oh, these games these days are so fancy. It's like, all I want is to be with a laser gun on another planet. That's what I want. Give me that and I'm happy."
And I realized, like, yeah, that's the fantasy. Some games, that's the fantasy. It's like, you're on another planet, you have a laser gun, and you can shoot stuff. So, often with games, I ask what's the fantasy? Sometimes it doesn't move me. Sometimes it does. I had an old copy of, oh, what's that game called? Red Faction? The one, you know?
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
The big innovation of that game was the destructible environments.
So I kinda had it 'cause a friend had given it to me to show me because it was really innovative when it first came out. You shoot the building and the building falls apart. The physics of it were really cool, again, for the time for a PlayStation 3 game. So I played it for about half an hour and I'm like, "Oh, that's neat." I played it and I sort of put it down. And then, when my son was 10 years old he'd run out of stuff to play so I'm like, "I dunno, take a look at this." So, he runs up to a building with a hammer and the wall starts breaking and the thing falls down, makes a big crash, and he's instantly hooked. Like, so he's to into it. [Laughs.] He just played that game to death because he could destroy things, just run around breaking buildings and stuff. Not so much people. Like, that wasn't the excitement. It was the destructible environments.
Yeah, the big thing with that game, if I recall -- I was in a band and our drummer was obsessed with it and he used to talk about it all the time. But it was the terrain moved up and down, too, which in hindsight was however many years before Minecraft? [Laughs.]
Yeah, yeah. But with that game there, you could see, again, the core fantasy was a kind of destruction. Not a shooting people destruction but a wreaking havoc on your environment, breaking buildings, this kind of stuff, which really spoke to my 10-year-old son and left me totally cold. I don't know. So all of these games, there's the question of what's the core fantasy and is it one that you really want people to be fantasizing about? So, like, the really military shooters where the core fantasy is this is what it's like to be in a war? I'm not super-keen on my kids playing those.
It's just not a fantasy I approve of.
I guess this can apply to games, too. So much time has passed since you co-wrote that book. I mean, I guess I'd be curious to hear you talk a little bit about what you feel is the primary character, if there is one, of marketing in our culture either today or in the time since you wrote that book. Maybe even how you've noticed that shift?
Sure. I mean, look --
And that might be super-broad, so if there's any way that jumps out at you to narrow it down, that's totally fine.
Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean, it's absolutely true that a lot of what we wrote in that book is obsolete. It's, what? Fourteen years old now or so? It's a fairly old book.
It was '05, yeah.
It's a 20th century piece of work. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Well, there's a thing in the conclusion about the rise of the internet. So, it's been a while. I think Amazon just sold books back then.
Yeah, the reason I was reading Angela Nagle's book was actually because Andrew Potter, my co-author, sent it to me saying, "This is kind of like an update on what's been happening since The Rebel Sell.”
But yeah, Kill All Normies is totally worth reading. So, The Rebel Sell was written right after Naomi Klein's No Logo and the left-wing anti-globalization movement of the late 20th century, before the anti globalization movement was appropriated by the right. [Laughs.] But at the time, with Adbusters and culture jamming and No Logo and so on, there was this idea that the way in which corporations were establishing cultural hegemony in our society was through advertising. So, that advertising was -- the same, you know, the Nazis had their big propaganda campaign that brainwashed Germans into complicity that basically the giant corporations were brainwashing the population into complicity with the evils of capitalism through advertising. Brands were the big enemy. And so, at the time, what people on the left were being told was that the way to get to the nerve center of global capitalism, to really attack and kick them in the nuts where it hurts, was to go after their brands and to do this uncooling campaign whereby you do what Adbusters was doing. You associate Nike with sweatshops or you throw blood on people's fur coats and whatever. All of this attacking of the brand and trying to disrupt their advertising because that is going to eliminate their hold over people's minds. What we were trying to argue in the book was, "Well, actually, that's just not true. It's just not the case that advertising is that important and these corporations will do just fine even if they didn't have ad campaigns."
So, one of the things that's happened with the internet and with advertising in general is there's been massive fragmentation of the market. The kind of really homogeneous broadband television-based advertising that looked like a Nazi propaganda campaign or whatever, that kind of advertising is really old fashioned and has largely gone by the by. So then the way that advertising works on the internet is completely different: highly targeted, not broad, it's individualized. It doesn't have a lot of the characteristics of the old-fashioned kind of scary mass society advertising. I think that there's been -- like, now, what I described to you, this view that was being put forward in the late 20th century about brands and advertising and stuff, I think it sounds absurd. Well, I thought it was absurd 20 years ago. [Laughs.]
But now, when I just describe it I think most people, it would sound absurd to them on the very face of it. I think people would have difficulty believing that advertising was that powerful, in part because we've seen so much fragmentation and change in the advertising industry and it hasn't really done anything or affected global capitalism at all. So, again, I take that to be largely vindication of the kind of criticism we were making of this relentless focus on brands and advertising.
But, as far as the business is concerned with advertising and with the internet and so on, the fundamental problems of the business haven't really changed that much. Which is that companies do advertising but they still don't have a good theory of what they're doing when they advertise. And even with the sophisticated techniques that are being used by Google and so forth, companies still suspect -- they always used to say that half their advertising budget was wasted, they just didn't know which half. That was optimistic. A lot of people would say 80 or 90 percent of their advertising budget was being wasted.
But it's exactly the same thing now with targeted ads. There's a lot of people saying the same thing, which is -- I always do this thing where I shop for something online and then I go buy it and then for the next month I have to look at ads for the thing I just bought.
A lot of people have been looking at that saying it's like the same-old same-old. They're targeting people -- by the time it becomes sufficiently obvious to Google or Facebook that you want something, you've already decided to buy it. What you want is to advertise to the people who haven't thought of buying it or whatever. So, a lot of what's happened on the internet, despite all the technical wizardry underlying it is it's exactly the same problem, which is that companies have this big advertising budget. They spend lots of money on it but they actually don't know that much, whether or not it's helping them to sell stuff. [Laughs.]
But have you sensed any sort of shift in the flavor or character or content of advertising that we get beamed to us in any number of ways, like how that's changed in the last 10 years or so?
I mean, it does seem to me if you look at the targeted advertising on the internet, it's actually a little bit more old fashioned than the kinds of very, very broad-based branding that was occurring in the late 20th century or early 21st century. So, the big movement in advertising in the 20th century was you can think of it being away from rational content towards emotions.
So, ads of the 19th century were these long discursive affairs where they would say, "Ladies and gentlemen, if I can have your attention for a moment! I want to introduce the new product, the new type of chewing tobacco, which is less bitter." Like, it'd be a big long paragraph describing the products.
And then, the evolution of advertising was away from that towards, first of all, having less text, catchier phrases. Then there was the heyday of the unique selling proposition, which was that you had to have just one idea in your campaign. If you gave people more than one idea, you would just confuse them, so you had to have just one idea. So, a lot of the big slogans that are still familiar to us for, like, classic dry goods came from that era. So think of, what is it, Ivory soap: 99.7 percent pure or something like that. [Laughs.] That's been their slogan since the '60s. It doesn't actually mean anything. It's just that they decided that that was their unique selling proposition. And so, they've been selling Ivory soap with that same unique selling proposition for 50 years. So, anyhow, that was the big revelation.
And then the branding revolution was the thought that was like, "Oh, no, you don't even have to have one idea. All you have to have is a feeling." So, even, like, a concept like 99.9 percent pure is too literal. All you need is a feeling. That's the Benetton and the Diesel Jeans and Starbucks, even, are just an attempt to reduce a feeling and to associate it with a logo. That was the big heyday of brands and that was what, say, Naomi Klein thought was the most insidious. So, Nike was just the swoosh, or "just do it" or whatever. But it's not about the product. It's about motivation. It's about the way you feel. Benetton was like that as well. That was the really classic one.
Then there was a move towards having advertising that was just about provoking emotional resonance. That was really tied to the medium. That worked on television. That worked on magazine ads and so on. But that doesn't work with a little two-inch thing that pops up in a sidebar on your browser, and it doesn't work on Twitter, it doesn't work on Facebook. So, that kind of pure emotion branding -- I mean, it's the sort of industry gold standard in terms of how you cultivate a brand. But I actually see less and less of it the more time I spend online, for sure.
Well, are you using an ad blocker?
I don't think so. [Laughs.]
That's okay if you are. I'm not gonna scold you as a journalist. I'm already aware of the state of things.
Let's see. I'm talking to you on Skype and now I'm looking for an ad for the Hong Kong University MBA program, No. 1 in Asia. [Laughs.] Who knows, right? I'm on a university computer so it might think I want an MBA.
But it's a very discursive ad. It's actually full of text and a bunch of dates on it. It's not exactly a 19th century ad but it's definitely not a late 20th century-style ad. It's not trying to create a feeling in me or associate a brand. It's actually just giving me information about a program that I might be interested in. So, a lot of ads I see have prices and stuff in them, which is like going back to 1950's sort of thing. Or it's more like a flyer. It's like a flyer that's showing up on the internet.
Yeah. Well, I guess this is sort of the thing people say about the internet, too, is it allows us to connect but it can be so fragmented. I mean, do you sense a way that the concept of counterculture or being counter culture has changed with the rise of the internet, after you wrote that book?
Yeah, I think the big thing about the internet is that initially, at least, by making communications so friction-less, it made it practically impossible to get us a subculture going that would really be isolated from the mainstream, and therefore can serve as a source of cachet. For a while. Now, you can kind of do that in the sort of -- I mean, social media now has made it possible to do that a little bit more in the weirder corners of the internet, where you can create these subcultures. But, like, in the real world -- so, I mean, here would be an example. When I was young, to get music, you had to go to a physical record store.
[Laughs.] Me too.
But, the kind of music we listened to when we were young was not on the radio because partly the Generation X experience was that we were a very small demographic cohort. So, it was still more profitable to sell to people older than us. So, radio was completely dominated by, whatever, the Eagles and stuff like that. [Laughs.] No one was playing punk. It was actually funny -- what was that movie with John Cusack where he plays the hitman? Grosse Pointe Blank. It had the soundtrack from the '80s. So, all these songs I used to listen to when I was in high school. The funny thing about that was that that soundtrack from the '80s was actually not music that was ever played on the radio in the '80s.
That music was all underground. I mean, like, in the '80s, people were listening to Fleetwood Mac and stuff like that. That was all was on the radio. The Violent Femmes, I never heard it on the radio once in my entire life. So, you had a genuine underground there. I grew up in Western Canada in the middle of nowhere. So, you go to a record store, and somebody would have one copy of Maximumrocknroll from San Francisco. So, you had these zines that were being sent around and people would photocopy them and re-photocopy them to know what was happening. What's going on with the Dead Kennedys, that kind of stuff. So, you really felt like you belonged to this really elite club. But there was this huge time lag where whatever was cool in New York or whatever was cool in San Francisco or stuff like that, it would take months and months for it to diffuse itself to smaller places in North America. So, somebody would go to New York at Christmas with their parents and they would come back with some new boots or something like that that was cool, and it would be like this huge, huge status symbol cachet item, because this is what's currently cool in New York. Because there was absolutely no way of finding out directly what was going on at CBGB's in the early 1980's except to go to New York.
So, already, MTV, when it came on the air, it started to change that because they started hiring younger people and they would have some -- this was back when MTV actually showed music videos.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
So I remember in high school seeing a Talking Heads video, the first time everyone saw them on TV, and having my mind blown. But anyhow, so, this is just how much the world has changed, right? But what that meant was that when we had a subculture, there was a small group of people who were in the know. Acquiring the knowledge of what was cool and what was underground was very labor-intensive and therefore you got a huge amount of status, like, "I'm a rebel." So, you could really think of yourself as being fundamentally outside of and different from mainstream society. And then the so-called cooptation, when everyone else found out about these styles and started imitating them, and then they became mainstream? Those cycles of cooptation took years because things traveled so slowly. So, a style would remain cool for years before it became a cliche. So, the internet changes all that. Obviously, when everyone's uploading whatever they do onto YouTube, onto Facebook, whatever, you can just go and look and see what people are doing.
You can instantly know what's happening at every scene anywhere in the world. If you want to be like one of those Saudi guys who ghost rides his cars and stuff like that, you can just watch what's going on in Saudi Arabia and see what disaffected youth in Saudi Arabia are doing. If you want to imitate them in rural Iowa, go ahead and do it, right? So, it's not really a subculture anymore. It's just instantly gets mainstreamed and everybody knows about it. M.I.A. does a video of it and everybody -- so, the "cooptation" of these subcultures just occurs instantaneously as soon as anybody gets anything going. So, I think that just calls the bluff on the whole thing.
So, like, it took me years and years to figure out that what we were doing in this whole punk subculture was actually pretty much entertainment and status-seeking. Like, it wasn't progressive and it wasn't revolutionary. That was a hard won insight because to us it really looked as though we were this tiny oppressed avant-garde minority fighting the good fight against the deadening mass society. It really looked that way. So it took a long time to figure out that that wasn't what was going on. Whereas now I think for younger people these days it's just obvious that that's not what's going on.
[Pause.] What is going on? I mean --
[Laughs.] What's going on is that "the system," primarily capitalism is extraordinary flexible and good at catering to all kinds of individual and minority tastes. The era of mass society had more to do with the technology of how to produce things. So, it used to be that if you wanted to make 10,000 homes and 50,000 chairs, they all had to be the same. If you wanted to make cars that sold for $500, they all had to be black. But that was not a function of capitalism or "the system." That was just a function of the way factories were being organized. Technology has changed that so that capitalism can now offer you the equivalent of a Starbucks latte with all of the 150 different options that you've come to expect in your latte.
Actually, no other economic system can come even close to providing that kind of individualized consumer experience.
I mean, it's funny. I know you talk about that in the book a bit. You talk about the mass production, old suburbia mentality applying to summer blockbusters. I think it's true of bigger industry games. I mean, is it naive to think that we can change what these entertainment industries and their output is like? Or is it just naive to think that if you aren't executive at one of those huge publishing studios?
Well, I think that with certain forms of mass entertainment, like summer blockbusters movies and so on, what we've come to realize is that those are entirely a consequence of network effects. In other words, it's not an ideological agenda of someone trying to brainwash the population into all: "You must go see Wonder Woman." Or whatever.
[Laughs.] I knew it was going to be a superhero movie.
[Laughs.] People used to seriously think that Disney had this agenda of brainwashing young girls to be Disney princesses and so on. Already, there was some evidence that Disney didn't really have that agenda. Like, Mulan was the tipping point. She is the Disney princess with the most confirmed kills in the movie. [Laughs.] She kills just slightly over 2,000 people in that movie. So, already, you had people -- you're moving away from the classic Disney princess even before the internet. But now it's become obvious that with these studios producing these movies and so on, that they're just as happy producing these little offbeat whatever things. They make more money on them because their production costs are so low and so on. They are totally happy to cater to whatever case people have, and if it's not big studios doing it, there's thousands of niche players who can produce things at very low cost and stick them on the internet and so on and so forth.
So, capitalism is totally neutral vis-a-vis what kind of visual entertainment we consume. But what happens, though, and it's very true of movies -- it's even more so with books -- is people like not just consuming entertainment products, they also like to talk about what they're consuming. So, that's huge in the book industry. People like to talk about the books that they're reading. For a lot of people, a major reason to read a book is to be able to talk about it with people. That's the same thing with movies, particularly summer movies. So you wind up with blockbusters.
So, it's a network effect because what happens is people go to see the movie not even because they want to see it but because they expect everyone else to have seen it and they want to talk about it. So, you get -- that all by itself is gonna generate a certain homogenization of the product. This is something that economists actually talked about a really long time ago. But it happens in real estate, too. What happens is when you're making a movie, you don't necessarily want to make a movie that people will like. You want to make a movie that people will perceive as the kind of movie that other people will like, because if people perceive it as a movie that others are likely to see, then they're gonna go see it. It becomes a self-fulfilling expectation. It's because they want to talk about it. So, they're gonna pick the movie that they think their co-workers or their friends are most likely to have seen. So, you'll get homogenization of the product because the whole thing becomes a game of fulfilling expectations.
Do you think something similar is going on with videogames as well? The networks that are in effect there are literal networks.
Yeah. And you've had the same problem with sequelitis with videogames as well, to a certain degree. You can see -- the sequel thing with Hollywood movies becomes kind of ridiculous. But again, you can see how it makes sense if it's all just about expectations and you want a product that other people will expect others to have seen. And similarly with videogames. I mean, different ones have different dynamics. Obviously stuff that has a significant online component, then, people are gonna -- you have to keep a community going for the game because a lot of the value of it is being able to find other people to play against. So, then the network effects become even more significant. Once you get a community around a game, then you can kind of keep it going forever if you throw in enough to make it ongoing and interesting. So, Counter-Strike would be the best example. It's amazing how many people still people play that.
Then that becomes valuable because it's hard to recreate that kind of a community from scratch. That's actually why what Blizzard did with Overwatch is kind of amazing, being able to generate that from scratch from a company that doesn't have any experience doing online FPS gaming.
So, a lot of people were skeptical about that. Like, TF2, they kept it going with the funny hats and stuff like that for a real long time. [Laughs.] You know, I lost a couple years of my life to that game. It worked pretty well. But eventually that actually kinda ran out of steam, so it's a bit amazing that Counter-Strike hasn't run out of steam. But you can see what happens there. It's even different from movies, but it's a similar phenomenon, which is once you've got this core of people who've invested in playing the game and becoming good at it and so on, then you can keep those people as long as you update the product enough. What they're interested is in not the game. What they're interested in is interacting with other members of the gaming community.
Through the game. Yeah.
Yeah. There are games that die, like Titanfall, that die because not enough people are playing them. And particularly with intelligent matching, like, if you're not just finding your own server, once you have to sit there and wait five minutes for a match then you're not playing that game anymore. So, there is a little bit of that with online. Like I said, I know the set of online competitive gaming more than the single-player stuff.
Well, one of the favorite insights of mine from Rebel Sell is you talk about the way people talk -- I mean, you already referenced it. Just, things being “co-opted” when it's really just markets responding. I guess, as you do pay attention to game culture, are there ways that you see people -- I don't know, they're resisting this realization without realizing that's what's going on? Do you see that taking place in game culture?
It's a good question whether or not in gaming there is the equivalent of what you have in music, which is the, "Oh, I'm a big fan of their early albums."
Music has become this whole stereotype, again, because people kind of realized the dynamic that we were describing in the book, which is a lot of taste is not about what you like. It's about what you dislike. So, a lot of music taste is about -- my friend Carl Wilson wrote a great book on Celine Dion, about journeys to the depths of taste. Like, bad taste. Because all people who are music cognoscenti, they all agree that Celine Dion is just absolutely horrible so they have a visceral dislike of Celine Dion.
So, he decides just to investigate that realizing that people would always talk about their taste as though it were a positive thing. But often your distaste is the most important thing. It's certainly the case with music and so on that the classic music snob is somebody who has this impeccably curated music collection. If you found a Nickelback song in their playlist or something like that, that'd be hugely humiliating to them. because it's really important not to have that kind of bad taste.
Then what happens then, of course -- the big thing is to have discovered some amazing group that nobody else knows about. So that when you are listening to it, everyone's like, "Oh wow! What is that? How did you know about this?" That's what gives you the status. There's a huge amount of status competition in music. What happens though inevitably is you get the "selling out" phenomenon which is that when people have this fabulous, awesome underground band that only they and a couple friends know about. Well, everybody hears it if the band is truly fabulous. Then everybody who hears about it says, "Oh, that was great. I want to listen to that, too." The band becomes popular and then they start selling tons of albums and then they start going on the radio or they have video or whatever. They become famous.
Then, all of a sudden, the band no longer serves as a source of cachet or status because how do you know that you're one of these elite people as opposed to just one of the unwashed who listens to it because they don't know any better? So, that's why people have to make this move of saying, "Oh yeah, I only like their early work. I'm only a fan of their early work." It's to show that they're part of the elite group who knew about them before they were cool back. That kind of thing. So that's become kind of a cliche in music. But I'm curious whether or not there's any games that are like that. Do you know of any games where it's like, "Oh it went mainstream and now I don't like it anymore but I was really into it back when nobody played it?"
It's weird because I've observed in games the snobbery is inverted where it's like, "Oh, you don't play Halo?”
People take it as a mark of distinction that they don't play Halo? The opposite. "Oh, you're not part of the club."
It doesn't seem to have the same effect where something being popular undermines its status.
Which is odd. I wonder. I mean, there are sort of recherche games that only the real cognoscenti know about. So, I mentioned, for example, Papers, Please and stuff like that.
That's a kind of intellectual game I would almost say. Well, yeah, so the stuff with the really low-res graphics and stuff like that? [Laughs.] Games that are really conceptual? There is a kind of elitism around games like that where it's not just the eye candy and the shoot-'em-up or whatever, but the game is trying to do something sort of conceptual. So you can see the basis for a little bit of snobbery around that. But, yeah, you don't see a lot of the status competition around, like, "What are you playing right now?" sort of thing. "Oh, I'm playing this super-elite game." No. Yeah. [Laughs.] So, anyhow, I don't know why that would be. That's a good question.
But I definitely have never heard anybody say, "Oh, I only like Mass Effect 1." [Laughs.]
It was all downhill from there, right? It was like sitting in elevators. No, no one ever says that. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Well, this is another sort of broad one --
Here's a theory.
A lot of games, the status hierarchy is skill-based, right? Like, a lot of these games, you're good at them, right? Especially ones with rankings. So, I think -- and people are pretty intensely competitive about and status-conscious about their rankings and about who's nerfing and who's doing this kind of stuff. So, maybe part of the reason you don't have it with music is that with music you're just a fan. You're just sitting there with 10,000 other people, so how do you stand out from that crowd other than being a super-fan or whatever? It's like, well, you're a fan of their early music. Whereas with games, you can be pro.
Yeah, no, and I do think there's another parallel, too, where I haven't talked to people like this in forever but I remember people in high school who would try to go real deep on music theory and try to prove to you mathematically why this band is really really great.
But, no, this is kind of broad but I've noticed in the years since '05 that there's been this rise of people calling themselves evangelists. I don't know if you've noticed this. I just find it interesting because if religious evangelists behaved the way that we see, like, tech evangelists act -- I think it would be called out more often as dissonant or disingenuous. I feel like I don't really see that opinion. Do you have an opinion on that or any thoughts on why so many people are eager to self-label themselves that?
Yeah, firstly, it's a phenomenon I've totally missed.
Oh, that's totally fine. [Pause.] Tech, which is also something you've written about -- I've noticed or I feel, and you may disagree, that a lot of tech writers and critics are usually advocates first. Like, we've seen it go since '06 with Twitter, just people going from championing it without much foresight into just having to publicly let people know that they're quitting and saying why it's awful. Do you think there can be a tendency of short sightedness in our eagerness to adopt new tech? Do you notice anything like that?
Yeah. I mean, this is where me being an old fogey starts to become more relevant, which is that a lot of new tech? I actually can't be bothered. [Laughs.]
Also, I have a comfortable job. [Laughs.] If I want to write something and get it published, I can manage that because I know people and stuff. So, I don't need to be on social media at all, and as a result I'm not. But I definitely consider that to be a reflection of the privilege that I enjoy. being an established writer, having a job as a university professor. Like, one of the luxuries of my job is that I don't have to be on Twitter.
That makes my life easier in so many ways. So, definitely, when people are super-keen about the latest technology, my reaction to a lot of stuff is the old-fogey reaction, which is, "Yeah, do I really need that?"
"Who needs it?" Yeah.
Yeah. My dad is 81 years old and he doesn't have a cell phone. That's also in its own way a luxury.
I mean, think how awesome it would be to not -- it's not that he doesn't have a cell phone. It's he doesn't need a cell phone.
He can get along just fine in his life without one. That's how lovely his life is. I mean, it'd be great to chuck your phone and then no one can get a hold of you. My dad goes for a walk and he's just like -- nobody's gonna bug him, right? 'Cause you can't call him.
He's gone. Yeah.
Actually, when he got older, I actually tricked him into having a cell phone which is that he really likes -- I gave him a tablet. He really likes the tablet for reading the newspaper. So, I gave him a 3G tablet with Viber on it, so I can call him on his tablet. So, he doesn't realize he has a cell phone. [Laughs.] It doesn't have an actual cell-phone number, but I can actually get a hold of him.
But, anyhow, part of the luxury of his life is that he doesn't need a cell phone. Part of the luxury of my life is I don't need to be on Twitter. So, I listen to young people -- for example, young female journalists, the amount of abuse that they get on Twitter.
It's a horrible situation. People are like, "What are you gonna do about it?" They're just like, "Well, what're you gonna do? I can't not be on Twitter and have a career. So, when I write something that's gonna upset people I just get ready to suffer massive amounts of abuse.” And that's the way it is. That's why I don't have any illusions about -- the fact that I personally have resisted lots of different technological innovations is actually not a sign of moral anything. It's just a sign of being in a more privileged social position where I don't have to be up to date on all this kind of stuff.
No, and I think you're right in saying that it is a luxury.
So, this is a quote from near the end of the book where you talk about how countercultural activists often wind up exacerbating precisely the problems they're hoping to solve. You write about a lot of different industries in that book. I wonder if there's any specifics that stick out to you as ways this has played out in pop culture or entertainment industries?
Yeah, I mean, at the time we were thinking about the uncooling strategies and attacking brands. So, we were thinking of primarily music and fashion -- and particularly with clothing. So, think of the 1960's critique of school uniforms. The thought was -- I mean, I grew up listening to Pink Floyd's The Wall. [Laughs.] "We don't need no education / we don't need no thought control." The school uniform was really emblematic of the kind of thought control that was thought to be perpetrated by the school system. So, the idea was that capitalism requires factory labor. In order to have factory labor, there must be a docile workforce. In order for there to be a docile workforce, there must be an institution that produces -- dominates and turns rowdy children into docile workers. That's the school system. The way the school system does that is by mindless, repetitious rote learning, uniforms, the punctuality of the clock, yadda yadda yadda. So, there was this -- I mean, it was a picture that if you looked at the world in 1961, that actually is a pretty compelling diagnosis of what's going on in society. It's a really believable story. What happened in the 1960's, then, was this rebellion against mass society -- a rebellion against every single item on that big list, on that big chain of connections that I just articulated.
So, it was a refusal to become the docile worker and to learn the things that they're teaching you and to wear the uniform and so on, to cut your hair short, to not grow a bear, blah blah blah. So, you just rebelled categorically against all those items on it. The thought, then, was that this was gonna undermine capitalism and capitalism is the system which sells you all of those goods that you don't need. It's because the factory overproduces goods that you then have to have advertising to brainwash people into wanting all of these things that they don't really need. So that you're gonna screw up that whole system through your countercultural rebellion. So, if you refuse to wear a uniform, you're gonna deal a death blow to this whole system of consumerism. So, what happened then, was the exact opposite happened. [Laughs.] Which is that it turns out the school uniform was actually pacifying consumerism amongst school children because it was preventing people from wearing more and more expensive and more and more high-prestige goods.
So, what happened almost uniformly, when you got rid of school uniforms was kids became extremely status-conscious and the household budget of clothing went way up. Parents found themselves pressured to spend more and more money on clothing because kids had to have the latest cool running shoes and they had to have the latest cool shirts and whatever, brands and so on. So, what had you had was a massive exacerbation of consumerism amongst school children, high school students and so on. So, rather than consumerism falling apart because of this attack on school uniforms, consumerism actually got far worse, and the reason that happened was just because the fundamental theory was wrong that conservatism is basically a type of status competition among consumers. Like, people are trying to look cooler, typically, than each other. School uniforms were basically an arms control or an armistice in that. Once you took off the armistice, then the competition got increasingly intense. Fashion and clothing was the No. 1 example that we had of this, and then music and various forms of cultural consumption. We weren't thinking so much cars and houses. Although, you can see similar dynamics in the housing market as well.
Oh, sorry! But I was gonna say, the world has changed, though, in amazing ways.
So, a lot of people have been talking about whether or not we're seeing a decline in classic consumerism, and I actually think we are. I know a lot of people have had this conundrum -- people my age with teenage kids, how this conundrum now: What do you buy your 15-year-old for his or her birthday? Because increasingly people are encountering this bizarre situation where 15-year-olds don't really want anything. So, my friend just bought his daughter a Wi-Fi range extender so her bedroom would have better Wi-Fi. It's, like, the most brilliant gift ever. [Laughs.] Because, in fact, that's all she wants.
So, when I was young -- when I was 15, I wanted a 10-speed bicycle and I wanted a set of downhill skis. But I couldn't get them. Partly because consumer goods were really expensive, so you really couldn't afford stuff. Like, if you had your own TV in your bedroom, that was awesome. That's expensive. People were spending two, three month's salary on their stereo, their music player. So, partly, it was that goods were expensive and rare and our society was actually a lot poorer and so people have material things that they really wanted that they didn't have. But the other thing, though, was that the primary way in which we communicated social status was through these choice of goods. So, it was the kind of jeans you wore and stuff like that that was really really important.
So, what's happened now with social media and the whole phenomenon of likes is that people have found a way of getting status and approval from their peers directly without the intermediation of goods. You post a photo on Instagram and you get a whole bunch of likes on it. That's the direct approval of your peers. Or you get a certain number of followers. That gives you the hierarchical social status that people all want in high school but that they used to try to get by being cool through a display of material possessions. There's a sense in which a large part of the status competition has been dematerialized. That's why people want better Wifi, is because all of it's being mediated through their phones and it no longer requires goods. So, I actually think there's a genuine and a revolutionary phenomenon there, which is that younger people are less consumerist than they were when I was young. That's for sure. They're not less concerned about status, it's just that they have ways of getting status that don't rely upon material goods anymore. That's big.
If you think of Thorstein Veblen's fundamental analysis of competitive consumption, he said the 19th century was all about leisure. That the way in which people competed for status was by displaying not working. [Laughs.] So, that's the way the feudal social order -- the way in which people showed their superiority was by showing that they didn't have to work. So, the reason the Chinese would grow long fingernails and stuff or bind feet was to show that they're not working. The traditional European aristocracy engaged in what he called "conspicuous leisure." But capitalism changed all of that so that now lots of people are either working or not working.
So, conspicuous labor passed away and it became conspicuous consumption. His book, which was written right at the end of the 19th century was basically saying: "We're now making a transition from the era of conspicuous leisure to the era of conspicuous consumption." The reason it became such an important book was that he nailed it. He got it exactly right. Social class in the 20th century -- I mean, Princess Diana used to always talk about the work that she did. Like, "What do you enjoy in life?" "It's the work, it's the charities." So, you have this situation where the actual Duchess of Cambridge is always talking about working. That was a very 20th century kind of value. In the 19th century, she would be all about not working.
What Princess Diana was big on was the clothes she wore and stuff like that. It was all about the consumption. So, Veblen completely got that right in this transition from conspicuous leisure to conspicuous consumption. Now, it seems as though we're making at transition away from conspicuous consumption into something more like conspicuous likes or conspicuous followers. [Laughs.] I have to come up with a better term for it.
But, so, it's the same status competition. It's just people trying to show that they're better than each other. But it's happening to a different medium now than it used to be.
It just occurred to me. I asked before about co-opting -- I don't know. Have you ever heard anyone talk about or accuse aspects of journalism as being co-opted? Either today or ever?
I haven't, actually.
That's just a stray question that just occurred to me.
What do you think videogames have accomplished?
They accomplished? I mean, they accomplished a lot in the sense -- not in a deep sense, I don't think, but in the way in which people entertain themselves. [Laughs.] I mean, I don't know. When I was growing up I watched a lot of television. My kids have barely watched any television. Why? Because they're playing videogames. Videogames are far more engaging and far more immersive. I mean, that's ultimately the superiority of the medium, is that videogames are more immersive than the previous forms of mass entertainment including movies.
My wife who doesn't videogame a lot but recently decided she had to start doing some in order to have something to talk to us about was reflecting on the fact that when she's lying in bed at night playing a game, she's picturing walking through this place or that place or whatever. That's something that seldom happens with other media. There are whole worlds that I feel like I'm intimately acquainted with. [Laughs.] Like, there are still Quake maps that I could walk around mentally and tell you exactly where everything and such.
Videogames are hugely, hugely immersive and they're enormously engaging. In that respect, they create the possibility of different kinds of experiences that are obviously not there with cinema and with television and with books. All of these are different. I mean, books are emotionally engaging in a way that movies and television seldomly are and that videogames seldomly are also. But videogames are mentally immersive in a way that no other medium is. So, there's all kinds of potentials for exploration with that which has only barely begun and with VR and AR and so on, there's huge, huge potential there. That's really significant, but it also means that you have a generation of kids who have come up who have barely watched television and have not really had so much the experience that so many people of a previous generation have had.
You know, if you think of the classic critique of television, which is that's passive? Videogames are the exact opposite. If you look at, also, then, developmental psychology on the effects of videogaming, again, I'd be interested to see more research in that vein because it seems to me that all the classic criticisms of television don't apply to videogaming. Although, I think there's lots of things wrong with videogaming and in particular that it's addictive in ways that television isn't, games are also extremely frustrating and they reward persistence. So, think of jumping puzzles and stuff like that. Like, super-frustrating, right? But they reward persistence and there's all kinds of cognitive and personality traits that videogaming cultivates -- none of which are cultivated by television.
So, as a parent, I listen to a lot of stuff about how screen time is good or bad for kids. But I have difficulty believing that all screen time is equivalent. In particular, "screen time" tends to treat watching television and videogaming on par with each other. But I simply don't believe that videogaming is as bad as television, mainly because it's not passive. It's not cognitively passive, for sure. Yeah.
To the extent that our society was incredibly worried about television and its impact. Think of classic books like Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death and all that '60s stuff about television deadening the minds and all the jokes about it. So, there was this huge pressure to not let kids just rot in front of the television. Great. Well, videogames kind of solved that problem because -- well, and Instagram for girls checks all that problem as well. So, there's lots of stuff on the internet that have solved the problem of kids spending their whole day in front of the television. [Laughs.] I don't know if people are totally thrilled with the alternative to it.
But it is sort of the television-killer of our time.
Well, they used to say that about reading, too.
Yeah. Reading's complicated, right?